When the COVID 19 crisis unfolded in India, one could hardly imagine that it will also entail a humanitarian crisis of epic proportion- probably more severe than the health crisis itself. India was to be in the lockdown from March 25 to contain the spread. All economic activities were suspended and poor and daily wage earners, out of the blue, found themselves in the eye of a livelihood crisis. People in the more affluent strata of society did not face an existential crisis. Most of them had their savings and their jobs that saw them sail through. However, things got from bad to worse during the lockdown for daily wage-workers dependent on contractors or other business entities for remuneration in lieu of daily work and small businesses that were not based on online models. Hit by the crisis with no means of earning a livelihood, unable to pay their rents and get two square meals, the migrants amongst the workers had no option but to head back to their native villages, where at least two square meals would be guaranteed.
And they were everywhere! With no means to travel back during the lockdown, they embarked on long journeys, on cycles and on oxen carts and even on foot. The desperation led them to undertake a thousand kilometre journey (and sometime even more) on foot to their lands in Bihar, UP, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh; from their makeshift ‘karmabhoomis’ in the affluent pockets of India, such as major urban centres of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and the cities of Punjab and Gujarat. What we saw was the largest mass exodus of our times!
The awakening of the Good Samaritan
The news channels, publication houses, blogs, tweets and other forms of grey literature played a pivotal role in highlighting the plight of poor migrants teeming on National Highways in metropolitans like Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and several others. Two sisters living in Ghaziabad and Noida were witnessing the travesty of fate from close distance. Mahek Anand, a majors in Marketing and Events professional and her younger sister Dr Nehul Saxena a Bio Technologist, both mothers to very young children, watched hundreds of hapless migrants walking on foot with their young children and old frail family members. The flyovers became shelters for these people who huddled under the concrete structures for a meal break and respite from the unyielding weather.
They waited there for hours in hope to find some means of transportation to return to their homes. Mahek & Nehul watched in horror as the stories from the television and newspapers unfolded before their eyes and human tragedies became larger by the day. Wanting to help, both sisters decided to reach out to the walking crowds with personal resources. They bought some essential supplies such as dry ration and glucose biscuits, collected footwear for children that their own kids had outgrown, about two dozens of disposable bottles filled with water from their RO machines, handful of courage and hearts filled with human compassion, they set out on a charity mission. Upon returning with scenes of miseries on their minds, and feeling emotionally drained, they wrote an heartfelt facebook post with photos of their distribution exercise.
Within few hours, friends and family reached out lauding their act of kindness and requests to accept donations for procurement and distribution of more supplies. These friends were mostly based in other cities in the country and abroad. They were distraught watching the predicament of their fellow countrymen. Watching the sisters brave the threats of the pandemic and springing in action overwhelmed them and they began generously donating funds for distribution.
Being mothers, Mahek and Nehul were deeply concerned about the health and well being of young children forced into such harsh situations. They bought cartons of supplies of milk powder, baby and toddler food ready mix, Glucose and ORS packs, Sanitary Napkins etc. Meanwhile they also started giving supplies and funds to a group of trusted and committed volunteers and NGOs engaged in ensuring safe return of migrants stranded in other areas of National Capital Region. For four consecutive days, both sisters drove on a 15 km stretch of NH 24 between Delhi-UP and Ghaziabad, meeting and distributing supplies to migrant families.
This brought them some solace but also perturbed them hugely. They also saw people from nearby areas distributing cooked food and water to migrants walking and waiting on the roads. Though they felt elated watching others like them helping the migrants in all possible ways, the huge wastage of food also caught their attention. Thus, they stuck to their plan of providing only dry food supplies. But all these efforts were about to get washed away by a gargantuan human tragedy.
May-End – June 2020 – The news of a mother dying during her journey on a Shramik train bound to Muzaffarpur in Bihar pulled the last straw for both sisters. The heart wrenching visual of the viral video of a toddler tugging his dead mother’s shroud was too painful to bear. They both realized that sustenance during the long arduous journeys of these home bound poor people needed to be addressed effectively. They were given enough cooked food at the start of their journeys but just few hours into the travel the food would spoil due to hot weather conditions. The sisters then zeroed in on ” SATTU”.
A popular food preparation in states of UP & Bihar with a long shelf life and high nutritive value. The perfect sustenance food, that matched the geographical and socio-cultural profile of the migrant workers. They decided to make a kit that had basic ingredients (Satttu+Salt+Sugar+Lemons+Water) to prepare a refreshing drink or stomach filling dumpling for all ages. They had cracked a very economical way to bridge the sustenance and protection gap for COVID hit migrants. The idea was quickly floated around by the name of an initiative on social media – Sattu Setu.
The sheer, simplicity and straightforward relevance of the initiative struck a chord with like minded people, friends of friends and able founders of NGOs and volunteer groups. They were eager to embrace a new title for themselves as supporters of the initiative – Sattu Sathis.
Word travelled like wild fire and soon the idea became a unique movement of sorts. Funds poured in from all directions, in less than 48 hours of making a public appeal of support to friends on social media an amount of almost Rs 2 lakh was raised. The initiative in its 7 days of active distribution drive on railway stations and bus terminals in Delhi NCR during lockdowns and inter state border sealing, targeting migrants boarding Shramik Special trains and buses, successfully distributed 5000+ sattu kits.
In such times of adversity and crisis, Sattu Setu could bring back sights of smiling faces. These stranded people felt hugely comforted by receiving a simple familiar native food preparation, that they trusted to help them tide over their hardships and reach home safely. All this made possible from a sincere intent to help by the two sisters supported by relentless support of people who believe in doing their bit for humanity.
SATTU SETU could not have been possible without the unfaltering support of these special people who volunteered to take up roles without the need of even suggesting one.
Mrs. Anubha Prasad, National Coordinator, UNEP India, ensured the unhindered mobilization of funds to keep the wheel of humanity turning, her friends and acquaintances contributing generously throughout the active operations of Sattu-Setu initiative. She also provided the much-needed coordination support.
Ms Neha Upadhyay, founder Vishwadeep Trust & Guna Organics, for her continuous encouragement and supplementation of Hygiene Kits with other essentials like masks and soaps to the initiative, fortifying the protection of migrants. Anubha and Neha were already working for safe travels of migrant workers from Delhi to Bihar and UP and were well-versed with the desperation that they confronted.
Several more people deserve kudos- Ms Shailly Kedia, Researcher TERI, the creative talent behind the effective and prompt communication; Mr Kshitiz Anand, Founder, Happy Horizons Trust, for generating funds and always checking on the continuation of the drive; Mr Rahul Singh Bisht, a good samaritan for providing critical and timely information of Shramik Train schedules that were not available in time on IRCTC website. Mr Manoj Sharma, the kit maker who worked overtime from his humble shop and mill, ensuring uninterrupted supplies for distribution. Dr Manju Rani, Founder Green World Education & Research and her team, most prominently, Ms Rushi for holding the fort on a tough day when inter-state movement had halted, Ms Pallavi Program Officer Sathi Organization, for logistics support and distribution volunteering and above all, the superheroes on ground Mr Deepak Ahuja from South Delhi Nodal Office from Civil Defence and his brave foot soldiers, the most committed and disciplined lot of volunteers that could be there. This was an operation that was blessed with god-speed and powered by determination of such human beings.
Mahek and Nehul have concluded the first Chapter of Sattu Setu. This exercise has given them the confidence that anything is possible when you have the right intent and great friends and supporters. During the short span of this quick turn-around activity, they realized that much can be done with in the areas of bridging the nutritional gap in a country like Bharat a.k.a. India.
On these lines, they are now planning Sattu-Setu, Ver:2 that will be leveraged by technology for bridging the nutritional gap and addressing the crisis of hunger in a more structured format.