Community efforts

While non-governmental organisations step up to meet the food needs of migrant workers, the lack of adequate testing and the inordinate focus on Bengaluru remain worrisome.

Published : Apr 23, 2020 07:00 IST

Packing dry rations  for the Hasirudala initiative.

Packing dry rations for the Hasirudala initiative.

ON April 12, around 80 volunteers gathered at St. Joseph’s College in central Bengaluru to support the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Hasirudala’s initiative to provide dry rations to waste pickers and other vulnerable communities in Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka.

They got busy packing two kinds of kits. The larger kit contained 25 kilograms of rice, 5 kg of dal, a litre of oil, 1 kg each of sugar and salt, 500 gm each of chilli powder and tea powder and two bars of soap. The smaller kit contained 10 kg of rice and 2 kg of dal and the same quantities of the other items.

The volunteers said the large kit could sustain a family of four or five people for slightly over a month, while the smaller kit could sustain a family for 10-15 days.

Even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown on March 24, Hasirudala began to galvanise its network to provide rations to waste pickers.

“Initially we worked from the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) yard in Yeshwantpur before moving to St. Joseph’s College on April 3. Commodities bought wholesale are packed and distributed from here. Now, we are also reaching out directly to rice mills as the APMCs do not have sufficient rice,” said Lakshmi Karunakaran, programme director at Hasirudala.

Leading an alliance of NGOs called With Bengaluru, Hasirudala utilised donations from both individuals and corporates to sustain this initiative, which extended beyond the network of waste pickers identified by it.

As of April 12, the last day of the initiative, it had distributed nearly 20,000 large and small ration kits in Bengaluru and a few other towns in Karnataka, thus taking care of the food requirements of 75,000 to 80,000 persons.

One of the main challenges was coordinating with other relief organisations so that there was no overlap of targeted beneficiaries. Additionally, the aim of With Bengaluru was to reach out to large numbers of the working population who were below poverty line and not beneficiaries of the public distribution system (PDS). “Ideally, all this should not be done by private citizens. We are just filling the gap before the government steps in,” said Karthik Natarajan, who works with Hasirudala.

Shahin Shasa, who coordinates relief activity for another organisation, said: “We have received 320 requests for food since the lockdown began, meaning roughly around 6,000 people, as each request represents a cluster of people. Since the lockdown began, we have been able to partially close only around 150 requests. It is beyond our ability to handle this scale of demand as civil society volunteers.”

Stranded sections

NGOs had to step in to provide relief because of the sudden announcement of the lockdown from March 25 that left lakhs of vulnerable sections of the population stranded.

As the the State government did not have the field intelligence required to gauge and manage the colossal demand for essential commodities, the economically weaker sections were left in the lurch.

The Karnataka government initially announced that it would provide dry rations to all households whether they had ration cards or not, but in practice only rice and wheat are being provided to BPL beneficiaries.

A large section of the population, especially migrant labourers, was left out.

Recognising that dry rations were not reaching the needy, the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) came up with a scheme to provide cooked food that would be directly delivered to wards, and appointed BBMP officers to coordinate with the needy in each ward.

Some of these officers told Frontline that there was a serious shortage of cooked meals. Ahmed (who gave only one name) is responsible for liaising with the BBMP from Ward No. 49 (Lingarajapuram) in north Bengaluru. After his phone number was circulated widely from the beginning of April, he received between 50 and 100 calls every day asking for food, he said.

“I apprised the nodal officer regarding this and requested for at least 300 food packets to be sent to Lingarajapuram, but only 100 packets have been sent today [April 12] after so many days,” he said.

According to Ahmed, it is mostly construction workers from places such as Assam, Jharkhand and northern Karnataka who have been making desperate calls to him.

The BBMP claimed that 58,000 kits for migrant labourers, with rations for a week, had been distributed. However, many groups of migrant labourers continue to besiege NGO helplines with requests for rations.

Critics of the State government said it had not adequately used the Indira Canteens infrastructure to provide free meals to the needy.

There are around 260 Indira Canteens all over the State. With one Indira Canteen in each ward, there are 198 of these subsidised canteens in Bengaluru alone that provided three meals a day. Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa initially said that free food would be served in these centres from March 24, but the government stopped this within a week citing large crowds ofpeople who were not maintaining physical distancing norms as the reason.

When the canteens reopened in the first week of April, meals were priced at the usual subsidised rate of Rs.5 for breakfast and Rs.10 each for lunch and dinner.

Indira canteens

During the few days when free meals were served, the government distributed 2,78,985 food packets in the Indira Canteens in Bengaluru, but this demand crashed by almost 80 per cent as soon as the meals were priced, indicating that people were unable to even afford this meagre sum without their daily wages.

When this reporter went around Indira Canteens during lunch time on April 12, there were hardly any takers for the vegetable pulao packets, only 49 lunch packets had been sold. As per information available from the Indira Canteen of Ward No. 63 in Jayamahal, only 67 lunch packets were sold on April 11. A month earlier, this canteen served, on an average, more than 400 meals during lunch.

Vinay Sreenivasa of the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru, who has been following the issue of food security in Bengaluru during the lockdown, said: “Indira Canteens should be used for providing free food as they already have the infrastructure and spread all over the city.”

Some activists have also urged the government to use these canteens to distribute dry rations.

There are also reports that there is discrimination on the basis of religion, caste and region in some areas where essential commodities are being distributed. Reports also said that the public health system has been disrupted, with even cancer patients needing radiology turned away from the Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology.

With the extension of the lockdown until May 3, many persons are raising questions over the government’s ability to provide adequate relief.

Fall in cases

The State government, meanwhile, has been patting itself on its back on reducing the rate of COVID-19 spread. K. Sudhakar, Minister of Medical Education, said in a statement: “If you see the States surrounding us where the numbers are spiking, Karnataka has done a better job as the numbers are not spiking here.”

In an earlier interview, Sudhakar had said that Bengaluru was “flattening the curve”, signifying a fall in the daily number of cases of persons testing positive.

In terms of the number of cases, Karnataka stood third on March 29 but has since fallen to 12th place..

However, it is too early to exult as the number of tests being done in Karnataka is lower than some States.

According to information from the Health Department, Karnataka had tested 12,184 samples as of April 15, of which 279 tested positive; 13 patients had died until then. Extrapolating from this data, Karnataka has done 178.14 tests per million people with 2.3 per cent of the samples testing positive. As far as the number of tests is concerned, Karnataka’s number is slightly lower than the national average.

Among confirmed cases, 44 per cent of the patients have some travel history while 39 per cent are their primary contacts. Of the remainder, 7 per cent are victims of severe acute respiratory infections.

Karnataka saw its largest single-day spike in cases on April 16 with 34 new cases. The total number of cases by afternoon stood at 313, with 17 new cases reported in Belagavi district alone.

The Karnataka government insists that the State has not entered the stage of community transmission, but the question arises as to how persons with no travel history or any contact with the victims have fallen prey to the virus.

Dr C.N. Manjunatha, a cardiologist who is the nodal officer of the COVID-19 task force in the State, said: “At this point, with persons with no case of travel history getting the infection, we can say that we are in the third stage [ofcommunity transmission].”

The Health Department has widened the protocol of testing from April 7 to include symptomatic persons in containment zones. The State government ordered one lakh testing kits on April 5.

Dr Srinivas Kakkaliya, a doctor based in Mangaluru who follows public health issues, said: “Karnataka has done an excellent job so far in containing the spread of COVID-19 as they have been quick in contact tracing and quarantining patients with travel history and primary contacts. The problem is that random sampling, prescribed in ICMR guidelines, is yet to start to figure out whether community transmission has taken place. This is such a disease that 80 per cent of the victims show mild to no symptoms, so random sampling is a must to understand its spread. If severe acute respiratory infections due to COVID-19 start rising in the days to come, that would also indicate rising spread in the community.”

Situation in the districts

In line with the decision of the Union government’s Department of Health and Family Welfare to divide districts all over the country into hotspots or red zones, non-hotspot districts and non-infected districts, in Karnataka, Bengaluru Urban, which has 76 cases, the highest number in the State, Mysuru and Belagavi have been designated as red zones with large outbreaks. Within Bengaluru city, 38 of 198 wards have been designated as hot spots as they have reported positive cases.

Dakshina Kannada, Bidar, Kalaburagi, Bagalkot and Dharwad districts have been identified as hotspot districts with clusters of cases.

Ballari, Mandya, Bengaluru Rural, Davangere, Udupi, Gadag, Tumakuru, Kodagu, Vijayapura, Chikkaballapura and Uttara Kannada have been designated as yellow zones or non-hotspot districts that have reported at least one case.

The remaining 11 districts are green zones as they are districts with no reported cases.

Karnataka has identified 18 government hospitals and 27 private hospitals in Bengaluru for COVID-19 patients. The coverage in the districts beyond Bengaluru is fairly poor, with only 34 hospitals in 28 districts designated to treat positive cases.

While it seems that Karnataka has managed to control the spread of the pandemic, things will become clearer only if large-scale random sampling is done to gauge the spread of the disease.

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