As per UNICEF, the pandemic and lockdowns have led to the closure of more than 15 lakh schools in India and impacted more than 25 crore children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. However, for a developing country like ours, the pandemic was just an added blow as more than 60 lakh boys and girls were out of school even before the pandemic. Efforts are being made by individuals and organisations to bridge this gap, especially post covid. Recently, Abhishek Shukla, the founder of Shuruaat — Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, opened a school for underprivileged children in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, named Shuruaat Play School. The children studying here are given quality education … and a lot more … for just Re 1/day. Why Re 1? Because that’s how much one tends to give to children who beg at traffic signals. The tagline of the campaign is quite apt – ek rupaiye bhiksha, ya ek rupaiye me shiksha … how would you rather spend your Re 1? By giving it as alms to a child or towards his/her daily school fees?
“When we started a few months back, many children would not even take bath or brush their teeth before coming to school. They did not know the importance of hygiene. It wasn’t their fault. They came from extremely poor pockets of the city. We would bathe them, and dress them up in clean uniforms,” said Abhishek Shukla, 31, who opened Shuruaat Play School in April this year in his hometown in Prayagraj (earlier Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh.
“The main purpose of the school is to teach these children moral values, apart from the regular subjects. They come from extremely underprivileged and poor backgrounds. Their parents are daily wage earners and make a living by driving autos or by picking and sorting garbage. Some are unemployed and most consume alcohol. These children go through a lot mentally and emotionally. We have identified some of them and encouraged them to join the school,” he added.
Around 90% of the children studying in the school are first-generation schoolgoers. For now, owing to the space crunch, Shukla and his team of volunteers have identified 50 children who desperately needed help. Some 30-40 are still waiting and thousands are yet to be identified.
“It’s a play school, so technically we should have given admission to 3-5-year-old children. However, because of their background, these children were never admitted to any school, and most are in the age group of 6-8 years. In fact, there are 2-3 girls studying in upper Kindergarten (UKG), who are 11-12 years old. It’s the first time in their life that they are going to school. Some children are orphans and the parents of some can’t even afford to pay the fees of Rs 30/month. However, we have allowed them to continue,” said Shukla.
The obvious question that came to my mind was why anyone would expect children from underprivileged backgrounds to pay Rs 30/month when there are many Anganwadi centres and government schools that are teaching children for free.
“The reason is, when parents pay fees, even if it’s as nominal as Re 1/day, both parents and children start taking school seriously. Besides, paying for their children’s education instills a sense of pride and self-respect in the parents. Also, when we take fees, our responsibility and accountability automatically go up,” said Shukla.
He added: “The reason why children drop out from government schools is that they don’t have to pay any fees and hence there is no obligation for parents to send their children to school or children to go to the school daily. The children don’t get any help or motivation from home as their parents don’t understand the importance of education. Gradually, they lose interest and drop out. These are the children we see begging at railway stations or traffic signals. They do odd jobs, or worse, start doing drugs, or end up in juvenile homes.”
High school dropout rate is indeed an issue. Data speaks volumes. As per the findings of the National Family Health Survey-5 conducted in 2019-21, the most common reason reported for children dropping out of school is a lack of interest in studies. This was the main reason found for children abandoning their education in previous rounds of the survey as well.
The key is to keep the children interested and invested. For this reason, Shukla and the six volunteer teachers working at the school have adopted innovative methods of teaching. The regular pattern of textbooks, classwork, and homework does not appeal to these children, so the teachers try to educate them through games, pictures, and paintings.
And what will happen to these children once they pass out of the play school? Shukla has cracked this. It’s not the first time he is dealing with underprivileged children and trying to integrate them into the mainstream education system.
It all started in 2016. Shukla was preparing to be a civil servant. One day, he was waiting at a traffic signal. A little girl came begging. She was carrying her baby brother in her arms. She told Shukla that her mother had passed away, her father was an alcoholic, and it was her responsibility to raise her brother. Shukla did not buy her story and went along with her to the slum where she lived. What he saw there changed his life. There were so many children who were miles away from any form of education. He decided to put his dream on hold and educate as many children as possible.
A few volunteers joined him and together they started teaching children in slums, on railway platforms, in parks, and on the streets. Many children were addicted to drugs or would beg and were violent. It wasn’t easy, but the team persisted. Gradually, they started enroling these children in government and government-aided schools. It was a huge motivation when some of these children started performing well. The team continued to work even during the 2020 lockdown. Recently, class 10th and 12th board exam results were announced and some of these children, especially girls, from extremely poor backgrounds have cleared their boards with flying colours.
Shuruaat Play School was conceptualised because teaching children in open spaces is difficult. The plan is to open many more such “Re 1” school.
“We need help. Right now, we have managed to collect funds through public fund-raising. People trust us, they have seen our work and hence they have contributed. But this is not going to be sustainable in the long run. The rent of the building where I run the school is Rs 22,000/per month. I am not even able to pay the sweeper Rs 1,500 from the fees that I collect. We are in the process of figuring out a sustainable financial model for our school, but for now, if people could donate to our fundraiser, that would be great,” said Shukla.
What keeps Shukla going despite the hardships and roadblocks can be gauged from the incident that he narrated.
“There is a lady named Rita Vishwakarma. She works as a house help. A few years back, we helped her two children get admission to a government school. A class 10 pass out, she got married very early and had to kill her desire of becoming a schoolteacher. She joined our school and for one-two years concentrated on brushing her knowledge. Later, she joined as a schoolteacher. When we were starting the play school and scrambling for funds, she pleasantly surprised us by donating Rs 20,000. She had been saving a little from her earnings for 5-6 years so that she could buy a computer for her son. She did not think twice before donating that entire amount to our play school because she believes in our cause. It is this goodwill that keeps me motivated and I am sure I will continue to get help,” said Shukla.
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When we rang in 2021 a year back, we were hopeful of making a fresh start and erasing the memories of the nightmare that 2020 was. A couple of months later, in April-May 2021, the devastating second wave of covid hit us like a Tsunami. We have entered a brand-new year, however, along with it, a new variant of the virus has clawed into our lives. The first known outbreak of the pandemic started in Wuhan, China, in November 2019. It’s 2022 now. That’s how long the pandemic has lasted. The presence of the virus in our lives for more than two years has led to us hitting the pause button on many of our life plans. Wish there was an option to rewind, reset and wipe out these anxiety-ridden months from our lives that robbed so many of us of milestone moments and changed the course of life for many. While the prolonged pandemic has impacted us all, in this story we bring to you some voices who in their own words have narrated the impact, takeaways, and learnings from the pandemic. Keep scrolling to read the six snippets.
“This pandemic has exposed the wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged”
Abhishek Shukla is the founder of an initiative named Shuruaat: Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, which is based in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. In this first-person account, he narrates how the pandemic gave him an opportunity to start a new initiative.
I started my initiative Shuruaat: Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki in 2016. I came across a girl begging at a signal. I decided to visit her basti (slum) along with her. I was shocked to see that there were many girls like her who were miles away from education. I was, back then, preparing for my civil services exam. I gave up my dream and started teaching children living in slums. Many volunteers joined me, and we started conducting morning and evening classes for children living in slums and on footpaths. We were also taking classes on the first platform of the Prayagraj railway station. Most of these children were beggars and drug addicts, 50% had never been to school and the rest were dropouts. Over the years, we also managed to enrol many children in government and private schools.
Only the initial days of the 2020 lockdown were difficult for us. Later on, with the help of our volunteers, we distributed education kits and encouraged the older children in the slums to teach the younger ones. Presently, baring our batch on the railway platform where we have to follow covid protocols, all our batches are now functioning like they were in the pre-covid period.
In fact, many more children are now a part of our initiative. In the last two years, lots of children dropped out of schools because parents, mostly from economically struggling sections of the society, were not able to pay the school fees. We are now encouraging more volunteers to join us as the number of children has gone up.
The pandemic also gave us an opportunity to start some more initiatives. During the lockdown, we realized that girls living in the slums faced many problems during their periods. First, the nearby shops were closed and not all have the resources to commute just to buy pads. Second, most daily wage earners were not earning, so they could not afford to buy expensive pads. Third, the lockdown impacted the availability of subsidized sanitary pads distributed by the government. Keeping these issues in mind, we opened a few branches of sanitary pad banks through which we distribute free-of-cost pads. Many girls are now “account holders” in these banks.
One thing that the pandemic has taught all of us is that we will now have to be prepared for any eventuality. We are into social work, and we were quickly able to tweak our strategies and continue to help people. However, there were many instances wherein help could not reach the beneficiaries. Also, the pandemic has, once again, exposed the wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged sections of our society. Our long-term plan should be to work towards bridging these societal anomalies.
“The pandemic crashed our dream of providing affordable education to underprivileged children from Adivasi communities”
Gaurav Girija Shukla is the founder of Sangyaa PR and Abhikalp Foundation and is based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. In this first-person account, he narrates how the pandemic has led to the near closure of the schools they had opened for children from Adivasi communities and underprivileged backgrounds.
In 2004, my mother, Girija Shukla, and all of us, embarked on a noble mission of providing affordable and quality education to rural children. Together, through our foundation named Abhikalp, we started a school in our hometown in Arang, which is on the outskirts of Raipur. Many parents living in the nearby villages, who were daily wage earners, farmers and belonged to the Adivasi communities, started sending their children to our school. Over the years, we managed to open three schools in and around Arang.
Until the pandemic hit in 2020, these schools were imparting quality education to more than 500 students from nursery to 10th standard. A proper infrastructure was in place and good teachers were hired. Things were looking bright, and it was immensely satisfying to see that we were able to accomplish our mission of providing affordable education to underprivileged children.
That was around two years back. Today, despite putting in all our savings and efforts, most of our conversations revolve around winding up. We had to shut the two schools we had opened in faraway villages. Though we intend to run the schools, the stakeholders are now discussing what to do with the existing infrastructure and school buildings.
The pandemic was a deal-breaker. These children belong to economically weaker sections of the society, and most are first-generation school-goers. We could never fully switch to online and mobile education because of various limitations. The parents were struggling to meet ends during the lockdown. They were not able to pay the school fees, as a result of which we could not give salaries to our teachers for long. The pandemic has dragged for too long and, and it’s not over yet. We did not get any help from the administration. The least they could have done was to issue very clear guidelines about payment of fees and reopening of schools during the lockdown and later on.
This is probably the last year for the school. Opting for funding is our last resort, but we are also aware of the fact that companies, corporates and independent entrepreneurs have also incurred massive losses because of the ongoing pandemic. We are heartbroken that innocent children from economically weaker sections of the society and Adivasi communities are going to suffer the most. This school was the most cherished dream of my mother who, among all the stakeholders, is the most shattered with these recent developments. We have no control over the pandemic. We just feel helpless and angry. Wish there was a way to save the school, that is the only source of education for many children, especially girls. The pandemic has crashed our dream.
“The only positive outcome of the pandemic is … more and more people are now opting for healthy eating”
Rahibai Popere is the winner of the prestigious Padma Shri award.
Working from her remote village — Kombhalne in Ahmednagar’s Akola tehsil, about 125 km from Pune in Maharashtra — Popere is taking farming back to its roots. She is known as the “seed woman”, who has pioneered a movement to preserve indigenous seeds. She has 114 varieties of 53 crops, preserved in traditional ways. On November 8, 2021, she received Padma Shri from the President of India Shri Ram Nath Kovind. Below are her views on the ongoing pandemic.
If you want to read more about Popere’s journey, click here and here.
My phone has not stopped ringing after receiving the Padma Shri. I had to wait to receive the prestigious award as because of the pandemic, the ceremony got postponed. But that’s okay. No one was in a mood to celebrate anyway. So many people were dying.
In my entire life, I have not seen something like a pandemic or a total lockdown. Though I live in a small village, the impact could be felt here as well. People could not earn money, there was no work, children could not go to school, and the elderly who need medical assistance, suffered too. It did not spare anyone. And, sadly, it’s not over it. Just a few days back, I attended an event in Ahmednagar (a district in Maharashtra). I came to know just now that some of the dignitaries have tested positive. Now I will have to get myself tested so that I don’t pass it on to my grandchildren.
However, one thing that I am happy about is that now more and more people are bending towards eating healthy and desi food. More and more people are consuming grains like jwari, bajra, millets and oats. This is a positive thing. I just hope this is not a temporary thing and for the sake of our children and future generations, we make healthy eating a way of life.
“For once we are flowing along with the tide. Hope this time the tide is in our stride”
Kalpana Swamy is a corporate communication professional based in Mumbai. In this first-person account, she narrates how, because of the pandemic, she could not bid adieu to her father.
“Life is what happens when you are busy planning” … this was just an intriguing quote for me till last year. But God has his way of showing us the answers to what we seek subconsciously. When the pandemic hit us in 2020, everything came to a standstill, and we felt what else could go wrong or it can’t get any worse. But not many knew that 2020 was just the first phase of the apocalypse. We were all running and suddenly the master above shouted “statue” and we stayed put where we were, indefinitely. But for how long could anyone stay put? There were rents to be paid, groceries to be bought and families to be fed.
When the calendar changed the dates, everyone was hopeful of a better year ahead without knowing that the worst was yet to come. The year 2021 seemed like the extention of the apocalypse that had set in the previous year. Many people lost their jobs, vaccine hesitancy created havoc, non-compliance of rules resulted in the second wave, which was much deadlier. It seemed people who had started getting comfortable being under house arrest were shaken with a jolt of miseries of many sorts.
Personally, my life changed, and it felt as if I was watching my own life in montages. We had a cushiony, comfortable life abroad. My parents were settled in their cosy perch back home. My daughter had gotten used to her online school and was enjoying the transition. Suddenly, we had to pack our bags, and move back to India. If this was not enough, I was in for a rude shock when I lost my father two days ahead of my India travel. I couldn’t meet him at the last moment, nor could I give him a farewell. This void will remain forever. But life has not ended for family around, and with whatever grief we have, we have to continue living with the memories of our loved ones.
Now, another year has ended and here we are, hopeful again! Life is happening and we have stopped planning. For once we are flowing along with the tide and hope this time, the tide is in our stride!”
“These kids missed the joy of wearing their first uniform”
Ashwini Nair is a freelance content writer based in Mumbai. In this first-person account, Nair talks about how her child is missing the joy of going to school.
The last school-type place my son saw was his playschool in March 2020. It was Animal Day where he went dressed as a leopard and got sent home early because of mild sniffles. The school shut down over the next week and now, since the past eight months, a ‘for rent’ sign hangs at where it used to be. Every time we go around the area, my kid points it out and says: “That’s where my school was.” He has already forgotten what it felt like to play with school friends and attend a class without his mother hovering over him. The change in attitudes, loss of social skills, and lack of friends and outside play is a completely different story. But, more importantly, the loss of childhood, outdoor fun to locked rooms, and gloomy indoors is simply despairing. Nothing can beat the joy of wearing your first uniform or the smell of a new school bag and it’s just sad that these kids will never get to experience it.
“No pandemic can stop Ajjibaichi Shala from functioning”
This is a first-person account by Yogendra Bangar, the man behind Ajjibaichi shala (a school for grandmothers). In 2012, Bangar, a Zilla Parishad school teacher, got transferred to the only government school in Fangane village, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from state capital Mumbai. In 2016, he opened a school for grandmothers, known as Ajjibaichi Shala.
We had to shut the school in March 2020 when covid cases started mounting. At that time, 30 grandmothers, in the age group of 60-90 years, were coming to the school.
When we opened the school in 2016, the grandmothers had to attend the school daily, for two hours in the afternoon, but after two years, we started calling them over the weekend as they also had to help with household chores. Our primary objective was to teach them how to write their names. They went beyond that. Today, all of them put their signatures on official documents and no longer have to go through the humiliation of giving their thumb impressions. They can read short stories, do basic calculations and most can read religious books. There are very few who can’t but that’s because they are too old and can’t see.
During the lockdown, the school was shut, but the passionate grandmothers continued to study at home. They would take the help of their grandchildren, and sometimes, Sheetal More, their teacher would help them. As they are senior citizens, we could not open the school after the lockdown, but they continued with their self-studies.
Recently, in December 2021, we opened the school, but soon we will have to shut it again because of the new variant. The grandmothers are disappointed, but the recent development has not deterred their motivation. If this phase drags for long, and we are not able to open school, we will give them textbooks so that they can study at home until normalcy resumes. I will make sure the school continues to function. No pandemic can stop Ajjibaichi Shala from functioning.
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World Food Day is observed on October 16 with an aim to eradicate hunger across the world. While, by God’s grace, we always had enough food on our plates, even during the pandemic, and most of us were in a position to help others with meals and ration during the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of these families rely on daily wages or unsteady incomes and the lockdowns dealt a major blow to them. While men were out of work, it was the women who had to bear the brunt as they had to manage with less ration or the parents had to cut down on their intake, so that their children could eat enough. I spoke to five such families.
Family 1: Rachana Singh and her family
Four-year-old Archit hesitated and looked at his mother when I offered him an apple which was in my bag. His mother, Rachana Singh, 27, hesitated too. I kept it on the charpoy on which I was sitting. Archit took it and ran into the room while his mother went back to chopping onions and tomatoes. “It’s been months we have bought any fruits,” said Singh and apologized to me for not offering me tea or biscuits. I told her she was very kind to allow me into her house and wait for my journalist friend who was roaming around the village taking quotes for a story that he was working on. It was October 2020, and we were in Jata Barauli village, which is in the Barabanki district, about 30 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. Singh and I got talking.
There are eight members in Singh’s family – two senior citizens, four adults and two children; out of these only two are earning members. The men worked as master craftsmen before the 2020 lockdown. They did not get a regular income, but it was steady and enough. They could buy a regular supply of milk fruits and vegetables, and sometimes indulged by buying fish, chicken, and eggs. The children would occasionally get their treats of cream biscuits and chocolates. The men could not earn between March and June 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country. The family had to bank on their minimal savings to keep the kitchen running and later had to borrow from a relative when the savings got exhausted. The men stepped out in July 2020 to find work but in the next four months, until October, they could collectively earn only Rs 8,000. The Singh family still had to clear the dues of the local grocery store owner who let them buy groceries on credit during the lockdown.
“These days we mostly eat a curry made of onions and tomatoes and drink tea once a day, in the morning. The adults have cut down on their tea intake so that the two children could be given milk. It’s been months since we bought fruits, eggs, chicken, or fish. We buy two-three vegetables a week. That’s all we can afford presently,” said Singh.
What about their ration cards? In Uttar Pradesh, there are 3.5 crore ration cardholders who receive a monthly quota of 3 kg wheat and 2 kg of rice at subsidized rates of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively, through 80,000 ration shops.
“Only the earning members in the family have ration cards. Our names are not mentioned in those ration cards. We have tried so many times, but because of some technical glitch, our names got omitted and the authorities have not been able to fix the error. Besides, that ration is not enough as there are eight members in the house. We still have to buy surplus wheat and rice,” said Singh.
Family 2: Ritu Gautam and her family
“Our diet has reduced to half. If the situation does not improve, we will have to eat less than this,” said Ritu Gautam, 25, who dropped by along with her toddler while I was talking to Singh. Gautams and Singhs are neighbours. There are twelve members in her family — eight adults and four children. Her husband is also a daily wage earner who had to sit at home during the entire lockdown. “It will take us a couple of months to recover from the lockdown. The men get angry at us and tell us to spend less. What they don’t understand is that vegetables, oil, spices, salt, pulses, wheat, rice, and milk are essential food items. When we were financially stable, it never pinched them, but now that money is an issue, they think we are splurging. Besides, if children demand extra milk, chocolates, and biscuits, we can’t say no to them every time,” said Gautam.
During the lockdown, all the state governments had pitched in to help daily wage earners and migrant labourers. In April 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government announced that it will provide an additional 5 kg of ration (rice/wheat) free along with the 5 kg of food grains to be distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) – a government scheme — to each beneficiary in May and June 2020. As many as 14.5 million people in the state were expected to benefit from the scheme. However, both Singh and Gautam families slipped through the cracks did not receive this additional ration.
When I left the village that day, both the ladies were hopeful that the situation would improve soon so that they could eat two proper meals a day. Just a month later, in November, onion prices touched a record Rs 100/kg, and a few months later, in March 2021, came the second wave of coronavirus, more ferocious than the first one. In a short span of time, it claimed many lives and dealt a severe blow to the economy. Both the waves of the coronavirus led to severe job losses and those who took the maximum hit were the daily wage earners who suffered not just during the lockdown, but also after that.
Covid, job losses and hunger
As per the latest report by Center for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE), during the first wave of Covid, India lost 6.3 million jobs. As per the same agency, when the devastating second wave halted the Indian economy, we lost an additional 13.3 million jobs. The impact of these job losses was also felt by the women who had to curtail their food budgets as a result of which most families were not eating enough.
In order to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, every year, World Food Day is celebrated across the globe on October 16. This day aims at tackling global hunger and striving to eradicate hunger across the world. In a research report published in June 2020, Oxfam had mentioned that COVID-19 was deepening the hunger crisis in the world’s hunger hotspots and creating new epicenters of hunger across the globe, and had predicted that by the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself. Unfortunately, India made to its list of countries and regions where the food crisis had worsened because of the pandemic.
While we belong to the privileged class that always had enough food on our plates, pandemic, or no pandemic, and by God’s grace, most of us were in a position to help others during both the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough food since the beginning of the pandemic.
Family 3: Rachana Devi and her family
It’s October 2021 and people are shelling out Rs 80 to buy one kg tomatoes. “I bought basics like onions, potatoes tomatoes and a few vegetables two days back and paid Rs 350. There are four members in the family, including two children aged 11 and 14. They are not kids anymore and corresponding to their ages, their diet has also increased. While we have not curtailed our food budget, myself and my husband have cut down on our diet so that our children could eat how much ever they want to,” said Rachana Devi who lives in Lucknow’s Gwari village.
Her husband does two jobs – he works on a contract basis with a local real estate contractor and his job is to arrange for labourers, he is also a priest who visits the homes of people and performs religious ceremonies. Both the jobs took a hit during the first and the second lockdowns. In fact, the family was still coming to terms with the losses incurred during the first lockdown, when the second wave struck. “During the second wave, people were talking about the third wave in October-November. Is that true? I don’t think we are in a position to deal with more financial losses as we are rebuilding for scratch,” said Singh.
Covid leads to India’s fall in hunger index
The Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 2020 released on October 14, 2021, mentions that India has slipped to the 101st position among 116 countries in the GHI ranking from its 2020 ranking (94), to be placed behind Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The report also mentions that “people have been severely hit by covid and by pandemic related restrictions in India, the country with highest child wasting rate worldwide.” The government, however, was quick to react and claimed that the methodology used to calculate India’s ranking was unscientific. Both the lockdowns undoubtedly worsened the food crisis, and the below case study is the perfect example of this.
Family 4: “Manoj ki mata ji” (Manoj’s mother) and her family
“Sab Manoj ki mata ji hi bulate hai,” (everyone calls me Manoj’s mother) said this woman in her sixties, when I asked her name. Brothers Manoj and Rakesh Singh, along with their families, lived in Gwari village in Lucknow until October 2020. Eight family members – the two brothers, their wives, their mother and two children – lived in a one-room house. Both brothers worked as rickshaw pullers and earned daily wages. During the first lockdown, the family had to depend on food packets that were distributed daily in the locality as in the absence of daily wages, it was difficult to buy groceries, milk, and vegetables. In the wake of a severe financial crunch, Manoj and his wife moved to their village in Sandila, a town two hours from Lucknow, where they have a small farm.
Rakesh started earning again in August 2020, however, a few months later, the second wave struck. This time, however, there were no food packets to bank on.
“We went hungry on some days, but thankfully, after a few weeks, we could go to our village home. We have a small farm there and we sow potatoes in it. Every month, my brother and his wife send a sack full of potatoes. In case of a third covid wave, this time we will at least have potatoes. That was our learning from the last two lockdowns. It was tough to go hungry on some days,” said Rakesh.
Family 5: Putli Devi and her family
In September 2020, just after the first lockdown, the price of one LPG cylinder was hovering around Rs 632. Presently, in October 2021, one LPG cylinder is priced at Rs 922.50. The constantly rising prices of LPG cylinders has burnt a hole in the pockets of even middle-class families, poor families don’t even have the means to refill these cylinders. A few families I met at Mehmudpur village in Barabanki district in September 2021 have gone back to cooking on chulha (wood stove). When I met Putli Devi at her house, the first thing I noticed that the ceiling of the house was covered with black soot. I wondered what cooking on the stove must be doing to her lungs. “Do we have an option? Everything is so expensive. But one must eat basic meals. We can’t cut down on the meals, we have to buy vegetables, oil, spices, wheat, rice and pulses. That can’t be done away with, so we have to cut down on other expenses. Why would I get the cylinder refilled when it costs Rs 800-900?” she asked. Her husband is a farm labourer, who was out of work during both the lockdowns, and she has two children aged 6 and 8.
“Is there going to be a third covid wave?” asked Putli Devi, while I was leaving her house.
Sunil Kumar, a social worker and an artist based in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, lost his wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, just a day before the March 22, 2020 Junta Curfew – a day-long lockdown that was announced ahead of the complete lockdown last year to stop the spread of coronavirus. While the whole country was anxious, Kumar was fighting a different battle at a hospital in Muzaffarpur caring for his wife, a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions. This inspirational story is about how he dealt with the grief of losing her
The date was March 21. The country was gearing up for the Junta Curfew — a day-long nationwide lockdown that was scheduled for the next day to stop the spread of coronavirus in the country. Not much was known about the pandemic then and people were very anxious. However, I was more anxious than the rest of the country because I was at the Sri Krishna Medical College in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, looking after my wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, who was admitted there. She was suffering from Meningitis and Kidney stones and had been battling for her life at the hospital for 50 days. For a week after she was admitted on January 31, 2020 after she complained of high fever and headache, her condition was improving, but after that she was gradually slipping away with every passing day.
The doctors were never optimistic, but I was hopeful. I had waited for Sarla for years before she had agreed to marry me on July 10, 2019. Now, nearly eight months later, I was at the hospital holding her hand and full of hope as she was swinging between the states of semi-conscious and unconsciousness. I was mentally prepared that day. The pain was unbearable for her. Finally, at 9 pm, my wife left me forever.
The next day was her funeral and also the Junta Curfew. The situation was tricky. Apart from the immediate family members, very few people who knew my wife well and had worked with her managed to come down to Sikandarpur (in Bihar) for the funeral. My heart sank when I touched Sarla for the last time. Sarla was a social worker, a puppeteer and an artist, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country and working for the betterment of underprivileged Adivasi women and children. Many friends and acquaintances spread across the country who knew Sarla well wanted to attend her funeral, but couldn’t because of the situation. But over the next few days, I was inundated with messages on social media and WhatsApp, which helped me come to terms with the fact that she was no more.
It didn’t help that the country went into a complete lockdown on March 25, just four days after her death. There was a void inside me, my house … and there was a strange stillness outside. However, the initial few days gave me the time to think about how to deal with the grief of losing her. And I thought the best way to do that would be to celebrate her life and work.
While she was alive, Sarla had worked non-stop every single day of her life for years and one of the reasons behind her untimely demise was the fact that she dedicated her life to make the lives of others better but never bothered about her own health. For instance, she would cook meals for hundreds of volunteers at social events but would forget to eat her meal.
Born on August 14, 1986 into a family of modest means in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, Sarla had to face many adversities while she was young … like the passing away of her elder sister when she was a child and not getting to spend time with her mother as she was mostly bedridden and away. Her father would repair flat tyres to make a living, but he was also a folk artiste. Sarla inherited many of the creative aspects from him. Participating in cultural events in school like singing, dancing and drama helped her escape from the harsh realities of her life. She also learnt the art of puppeteering, a talent that came in handy later in life when she travelled across some of the most remote and backward Adivasi regions to spread awareness using art as a medium.
From 2013 until she passed away, she was associated with various organizations in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand. She used the mediums of song, dance, skits and puppets to spread awareness among people living in backward Adivasi villages. She was also a part of many peace marches and cycle yatras that were organized to appeal for peace in regions that were affected due to Naxal violence. While her journey had been incredible and she did some commendable work, but she kept neglecting her health. In fact, she was so immersed in her work that though I had known her for long, I had to wait for many years before she could find time to marry me.
Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and though she was new to the city, she started working soon after we got married. In a brief period of time, she befriended many people and touched many lives. I am also a social worker and an artist, and I was thrilled that I was getting to spend a lot of time with my wife as we would often travel together for work.
All those who had met her still feel the void of her passing away. For me, personally, it would be impossible to feel that void … ever. I still feel the pain of losing my life partner just eight months after getting married … a partner whom I had very patiently waited for, for years.
I thought the best way to try to get over the grief would be to continue the work she had dedicated her life to. We took small steps. For instance, during the lockdown, we collected funds from those who were willing to contribute and helped the underprivileged with food and ration. With the help of journalists and NGOs, we worked on a project that helped those who had lost their jobs during the lockdown to find some form of employment. We distributed food packets and used art as a medium to stop people from falling into the trap of depression and anxiety.
On Sarla’s 34th birthday in August 2020, her first after her demise, I invited all those from across India who had worked with Sarla over the years and together we pledged to keep her work alive. In the last year, I took over the projects she was involved in and I am trying to complete them. While the pain of losing her will never subside and the void will never get filled, the least I can do to keep her alive in my memories is to continue her work.
Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day.
(Image credit: Sarla Siriwas’ Facebook page)
Sunil Kumar’saccount is a part of our series on‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Eshwari Shukla’s storyhere. She lost her father when she was only 13.
(Disclaimer:The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the author, in this case,it being Sunil Kumar and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)