Published: 03rd May 2020
How AID India is reaching out to the 'forgotten people' in Tamil Nadu's hills, villages and helping them survive the lockdown
The NGO that works in the field of education has been trying to reach out to people in remote areas and interior villages to ensure they get their ration
Ever since the lockdown was announced, A Sivakumar from AID India, an NGO that works towards equity in education, has met hundreds of people who all have different stories - stories about hunger, strife, loss of livelihood, deprivation and sadness. He has been distributing rations in the district of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu and everyday he meets people who are the most vulnerable, people who have gone hungry for days, who are surviving on a few sips of kanji (rice soaked in water) everyday and also some who are still holding on to hope.
When the lockdown was implemented, the members of AID India knew that there would be several families that they themselves knew of personally who would be going hungry. As they had to think fast and act fast, this is what they did to help students across the state learn better. As many students are not on par with their peers as they might not be as privileged or have as many resources as them, they always need some extra help. Thus AID India set up tuition centres in some of the remotest of locations to impart education to children who didn't have access or who needed some extra help. Over the years, they have trained teachers from the villages itself to teach at their tuition centres. So now when the lockdown came into play, the members reached out to these teachers in every centre.
Siva and his team
Every morning, the teachers send a list of the most vulnerable in their villages - those who cannot manage to get even a single meal a day to the team at AID India. The team then verifies these families by visiting them and then distributes the rations. "A lot of people need food but we are trying to identify the ones who are really struggling and give them the ration. And the sort of cases we've seen and stories we've heard are heart wrenching," Siva said. Siva has to walk uphill at places like the Jawadhu hills, carrying two, three bags of ration for 3-4 kilometres at a stretch, sometimes on very unstable terrain to reach the families.
But once he reaches the height and sees their smiling faces, the trek always seems worth it, he says. "They also tell us how much they've suffered. In Jawadhu Hills, we met a woman who didn't know the government was distributing rice and had no idea how to even get it. Her neighbours gave her a little dosa batter. She kept adding water to it and ate only that for six days. She had on a bed sheet instead of a sari," Siva said. Another story he tells us is of a man named Murugan, a basket weaver, who depended on a mere 100-150 rupees for his daily survival by selling 2-4 baskets a day. "He usually sold the baskets at the vegetable fair and then bought a few vegetables with the money he made. Now without his daily wage, he had no way to buy anything," Siva said.
In another village of about 60 families, Siva found that the entire population had been eating only jackfruit and a kind of leafy vegetable because it grew in the area. This had left them with stomach aches and ill health. Another place he had been told by the people that they had just been consuming only balled-up ragi for almost 15-20 days, "When we gave them rice, they were so relieved because they hadn't had a grain of rice all those days," he said. In another village in the Jawadhu Hills, Siva said he met a family who lived in a house that was not even big enough for their entire bodies, "The husband had died and the wife was taking care of six children by working as a domestic help. The lady told me that her children were all good students but the family was given an MBC certificate instead of an ST certificate because the authorities had made a mistake. So now they can't avail the benefits they deserve," he narrates.
Even though a lot of the families are in need of food, Siva says that when they reach the villages, the villagers themselves take them to the families that are worse off than them. "They guide us to the families that are truly in need even though they themselves are making do with very little. One of the families we met had run out of the 15 kgs of rice the government had given their families so with whatever rice was left they made kanji and each family member would take a few sips a day from a tumbler to sustain themselves," the volunteer said.
So far, the AID India team has given food provisions to 8419 families in 876 villages."We have provided each family with two weeks of food provisions. We also keep visiting and monitoring other families in the villages to ensure no one goes hungry," the volunteers said.
Samundeshwari V, one of the members of the core team in AID India has been coordinating, ideating and coming up with plans to help those in distress. She has been doing this from the time the Tsunami struck in 2004. "The fact about providing relief during these time is, that we only help those whom we can see. If we see somebody suffering, we offer to help. But what about the people that we don't see, that are not visible to our eyes? That are in remote places with no access. How do we help them? The ones who are most in need? So those are the people that we have been trying to locate, that's how we can ensure everyone gets what they need," she explained.
There are so many without ration cards, or any other identification, she pointed out. When the virus started to spread at an alarming rate, Samudeshwari immediately made a list of all the Irular families living around the area and immediately ensured that they were provided with all the medication that they may need. "Along with that we sent about 5 kgs of rice to them. Then after the lockdown started the families started calling and telling me that they don't have any food and they haven't eaten for days. So that's when we started coordinating with all the tuition teachers that we had trained and helped coordinate the relief," she explained.
While, initially, they ran into some trouble with the authorities and cops, soon they had all the help that they needed from he officials. "When they saw the work that we were doing, they also offered to help and we were able to reach out to more people," Siva said. The team also distributed 5000 masks among government officials as well and have taken all steps and followed all protocols to maintain safety as well.
However, AID India is not going to stop their work even after the lockdown is called off. They believe that the people are going to need regular food atleast for a few more months before they can get back on their feet. The team is also trying to raise some funds and lend money to those who need it to restart their businesses. "Some small vendors need only a few thousands to restart their work, so we are hoping to give them that money and later when they can, they could return it to us. But for now, they absolutely would need help trying to get back to their regular lives and so we will continue to engage with them at least for the next couple of months," she told us.