Novel phrases we are learning during this lockdown – social distancing, contact tracing, flattening the curve, etc. Imagine that you are practicing social distancing and bound by the zero-contact protocol, but the people who have come to collect their ration from you are so frail that they cannot lift their food packets – what choice are you left with? This is what we, who were engaged in survival food packet distribution work, faced recently in Chandrapur Development Block, Kamrup Metropolitan district in Assam.
The images of hunger and despair are enough to crush a spectator's spirit but to witness the spirit of generosity in people, who literally have nothing, leaves you impressed and humbled at the same time. Suniram Mardi, a beneficiary in the list we had made in Boshgaon, Kokrajhar district, gave away his own food packet to another woman who was equally poor, but facing an even more severe a crisis as her house was badly damaged in the storms that engulfed the region immediately after Bihu. No assistance from the government had reached this village in the Assam-Bhutan border, during the lockdown period. Our team that day had limited food packets because they did not know the exact situation in that area due to a lack of cell phone connectivity.
The impact of Covid-19 on humanity is not a linear narrative; it would have been, had the world been an egalitarian space, and did not have complex social, political and economic 'arrangements' which have somehow normalised the rise of one group of people at the cost of another's deprivation. What has become crystal clear in the past few months is that, our socio-political and economic order is unfair. It was apparent even before a global pandemic struck, but now, the whole world has the time and relatively less distractions and escape mechanisms to observe and sense it in a much palpable manner.
When the nation-wide lockdown was announced, I, like many others, immediately sensed the havoc it will wreak in the lives of daily wage earners – it is akin to a natural disaster; the relief action had to be quick and careful, with safety protocols maintained, to minimise the effect, not just of the virus itself, but of impending food insecurity for many in the country. With funds received from family, friends and known associates, we started our survival food packet distribution work in Kokrajhar district and later reached out in Golaghat, Sonitpur, Karbi Anglong and Kamrup district. Next is Baksa. We had collected information about people from the tea community in Assam, who did not have NFSA cards (ration cards) and were landless daily wage earners, and that was our first filtration point to create a priority list of families.
Talking about lists, Debaru Koll was sitting in front of his dwelling – a small tent made of worn-out clothes, with despair marked on his face. His two children, a six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter looked at the volunteers with mournful expressions. Debaru had done odd jobs earlier, as a daily wager. The earning was so meagre that he could not even afford to build a hut. He had never hoped for any benefits or welfare schemes. "I have neither any land nor any work," he says. "I do not exist on any list!"
He was right about that; he had not made it to our list either, because we had no idea of his existence – we just bumped into him. We offered him a food packet after seeing his despondency. He received the packet from us with moist eyes. I wonder how many Debaru's we have missed along the way. Debaru's family makes me think of all the people who are not in any list - their helplessness and anxiety, and I fear that even if the pandemic does not touch them, they may not survive. Death and disease touch the rich and poor alike, but the struggles are never proportionate.
As we progressed with our survival food packet distribution work, I was inundated with stories that at times overwhelmed me, but on other occasions certain stories gave me hope that the human spirit is still alive. Stories about honest effort and dignity were not hard to come by. A youth group in the subdivision of Bokajan, Karbi Anglong requested 7 quintals of rice from a brick kiln owner and offered payment in labour.
Florence, a teacher by profession said, "We cannot raise a big amount of money. Our people do not have the capacity to give much because of their meagre earnings. But yes, we can work; we can do shramdaan. And hence we decided to offer days of labour to the brick kiln owner if he gives us rice during our crisis." The youths from the district had also initiated a fund-raising drive where amount like Rs 10 was also welcome. It was the intention and attitude to provide essentials to the needy that mattered. Initiative need not always have to be monetary – one can contribute through skills, labour, talent, and goodwill. We supported their effort with food packets to a hundred households.
As the world celebrated Mother's Day recently, I was left pondering about the twenty mothers from Golaghat district who had approached their Panchayat member for help, in sheer desperation. They had cooked lunch for that day, but there was nothing at home for dinner. When the Panchayat member could not do anything, they approached Bikash, a local youth with an undaunted zeal to help people. Bikash went to the District Administration asking for some kind of succour for them but returned empty-handed. Finding no other means insight he contacted us. After verification, we could shortlist 30 such households in the village struggling to feed their families. We sent them food packets within a few hours. Conversations with these mothers revealed that they had not received any aid from the government or any other organisation, and had been eating only once a day so that their children could have more meals. Isn't this a universal homage to motherhood?
While concerned people sought ways and means to reach the needy, there were people who lived below the radar of public eye. An article in a leading English daily on Wednesday April 29 reported that the victims of the ethnic clashes of 1996-98, who resided in villages in Barobadha forest range, were facing a starvation-like situation. They had no ration cards and lived in fear of eviction amidst ethnic tension. Before the lockdown they worked as labourers and made some living by collecting firewood.
We had covered many such families through the survival food packet distribution and I wondered how could we have missed them? I had asked our team to distribute packets to such villages but due to lack of information the volunteers had not visited that particular village. The villagers reportedly hesitated to ask for help. Is it also not social conditioning we have attached to poverty – rebuking and shaming those who ask for help? We immediately label them as beggars, don't we?
But Monica Soren, left all that aside and asked for help. During our first few days of distribution of food packets in the districts, I received a WhatsApp message – it had a name, an address in Kokrajhar and a phone number. The message was from a senior government official in Delhi, who knew about our work. One of his colleagues who manages a helpline had received a call from the number, but could gather no information besides the name and address because the voice on the other side, could not speak Hindi.
The call was from Monica Soren, who lives in a village in Kokrajhar. She lives alone with her son. Lack of job opportunities in Assam had made her husband move to Kerala. He is one of the many thousands of workers from Assam, who had migrated to other states in search of livelihood. He has not visited Assam in the last two years, trying to make an earning before he could return to Monica and their child. He used to send some money to Monica regularly. Monica also supplemented by doing odd jobs like sewing and darning. Then Covid-19 struck. The lockdown meant the end of much-needed money from her husband.
Alone, with no money and fast depleting food, Monica knew that hunger would strike any day soon. Uncertainty, despair and fear filled her days and while she fed some morsels to her son, she spent sleepless nights. With no succour insight, she approached the Gaon Burha (the village headman) for assistance and who gave her a helpline number which connected her to Delhi. Under any normal circumstance, it would have been a long or futile process altogether. But within an hour, her information reached my phone due to a series of coincidences; I am still astounded by the unfolding of events of that single day and humbled by the fact that I could became an instrument of hope and relief for someone.
When I received the message, I realised from the surname that the woman belonged to the Santhal tribe. Our team of volunteers in Kokrajhar were already in the field distributing food packets. I immediately called Monica, and hearing a tearful voice tried to calm her in Assamese and assured her of help. I then called Sangeeta and Wilson, well-versed in Santhali, to speak to her and plan a response.
Our team had completed their distribution in Kokrajhar for the day, and Monica's house was off route. Nevertheless, they set out to her house and reached her late in the evening. Standing in front of her dilapidated hut with her child, her vulnerability marked across her face was disconcerting to the team. They talked to Monica and gave her a food packet, further assuring that she can call them anytime if she needed any assistance.
Later, Wilson shared how he was moved by her sorrow and loneliness. He felt that perhaps at least for a day they gave her some hope and a smile.
"Ask and it shall be given." Sangeeta quotes the Holy Book. "She asked and she received." It is somehow heartening that it took one phone call to initiate a positive, altruistic deed.
We have earnestly tried to provide relief packets or tried to facilitate government relief in some of the remotest regions of Assam. And, therefore, to read about the death of Habel Soren, a 30-year-old man from Serfanguri, PO Gossaigaon, Kokrajhar was gut-wrenching. Like many families in the fringe areas, Habel and his three neighbours were struggling to bring food for their families in the wake of the lockdown. Their community had lost their homes and their spartan belongings first in the ethnic unrests of 1996 and then in 2014, and were pushed farther into forests for safety and in order to avoid encountering people. So, when a local timber merchant asked the four men to get logs from the forest in exchange for some wage, they agreed. At that moment, perhaps they would have done any work to put some food on their families' plates.
On April 26 when they were in the forest, they were apprehended and tortured by Sashastra Seema Bal for the whole night and the following day. The persecution was so severe that Habel fainted. Later in the day, Forest Department personnel was called but by the time they thought of taking him to the local PHC in Kachugaon, Habel had succumbed to his injuries. The other three, though alive were badly injured and scarred for life. It was neither Covid-19 nor hunger but our insensitivity and brutality towards the poor, the marginalised and 'unseen ones' that snuffed out Habel's life. All he did was trying to earn something during the severe lockdown to bring food for his hungry family. Yes, he was indeed breaking the law, but does this justify his death? Why is it so that the most disenfranchised lot in our country have to pay for breaking laws with their lives, while others are left with warnings and fines? How can we claim our systems as fair?
Many refused to be humane towards the marginalised groups; on the other hand, poverty and despair still have not robbed the people of their own humanity. Their acts reposed my faith in mankind. Serfanguri in Kokrajhar district is one of the places where I had previously been on relief work and on photographic assignments, therefore, a place that prompts my empathy. Sangeeta, who had volunteered during the distribution of relief in that area shared her experiences with me. These are stories of utmost hospitality and compassion in the face of a looming disaster. She humbly recollects that these families even though had nothing by way of possessions, managed to welcome the volunteers with a warm smile. On each occasion and every area, the volunteers received a reciprocal gift of greens from the backyard, a sapling, a crimson hibiscus flower or a twig of a tree as a gesture of gratitude, hospitality and memory. How do you lose hope when such enriching and humbling experiences touch your life? We were only providing them temporary relief with food packets, but they had shown us the values and actions that make us human in the first place.
Even amid the prevailing gloom brought about by the silent killer these episodes reveal that thoughtful acts of kindness and empathy can still overcome daunting odds. Empathy, dignity and compassion will let hope prevail not just in the time of corona but also beyond.
Article Written by: Anjali Tirkey
Anjali Tirkey is a Guwahati based independent professional photographer who narrates human-interest stories against the socio-cultural backdrop of the region and brings a unique visual perspective to her every work. She took to professional photography in the year 2012. And was featured in the British Journal of Photography in 2013 after her Magnum Workshop with Master Photographer Abbas.
"Every object, every landscape, every person, every issue, needs to be seen with honesty, with beauty and dignity. And that is what I try to do with camera," she says. "That is a constant even when my modes of expression have changed over time from pen to camera."
Prior to shifting to the photography, she had been a columnist and feature writer and had penned articles for few dailies and magazines and some international journals covering topics like travel, women and children, health, environment and wildlife, socio-cultural life of different communities and the centuries of wisdom and the issues of the indigenous peoples. She has made a few documentary films on varied subjects like River Brahmaputra, Health initiatives of Govt of Assam and to Indigenous Peoples. Her documentary films on the Adivasis of Assam titled "'Lesser Inhabitants of the Green Paradise" and Mother-tongue based Multilingual Education amongst the tea garden workers' children titled "Rijhe Sikhab Sange Jaghab" have been well appreciated. Her work has been recognised internationally and she is the recipient of the Excellence in Journalism Award by UCIP in 2007.
She has also made many audio-video advertisements on health issues and had a stint with radio and hosted a travel talk show on FM channel. She is also an avid traveller, certified scuba diver and adventure enthusiast. But it's with her camera, she feels more evocative. It's her camera which gives voices to her subjects. She has photographed and designed 5 calendars and 3 books to date.
She is currently working on three photobook projects
1. Tribal Handloom Heritage of Assam,
2. Tea plantation workers in Assam,
3. Apatani Tribes in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh.