Rising to the occasion

As many as 20 NGOs and a wide group of volunteers under the umbrella of Mercy Mission have undertaken a significant share of relief work in Bengaluru during the lockdown.

Published : Jul 07, 2020 07:00 IST

Mercy Mission  volunteers distributing food packets to migrant workers travelling by Shramik Special trains.

Mercy Mission volunteers distributing food packets to migrant workers travelling by Shramik Special trains.

THE nationwide lockdown that began on March 25 not only decimated the livelihoods of millions in one fell swoop, but also pointed to the severe gap between the state’s intentions and efforts, and the reality on the ground with regard to relief work. A variety of non-state actors all over the country undertook to fill this gap by mobilising manpower and resources to reach out to migrant workers throughout the lockdown. 

In Bengaluru, Mohammed Ummer, the CEO of the non-profit organisation Project Smile, met Dr Taha Mateen, the managing trustee of HBS Hospital, a day before the Janata Curfew of March 22 and discussed the possibility of building a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in the city as concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic grew. Explaining the formation of the coalition that quickly brought together several NGOs under the umbrella of “Mercy Mission”, Dr Mateen said: “The Delhi riots made us realise that we [Muslims] had to have a disaster management team. We had no idea about the possible severity of the lockdown at that time.” 

Speaking to Frontline , Ummer explained that this was a novel initiative as “such a large-scale collaboration on a neutral platform had not happened before in Bengaluru”. 

As soon as the lockdown began on March 25, the coalition, which comprised 20 NGOs, organised its activities under broad departmental heads based on the kind of relief required. In retrospect, it is staggering to see the amount of work they undertook in the next few weeks during the strictest phase of the lockdown.

Until May 31, the Mercy Mission had distributed over 73,000 dry ration kits worth Rs.7.5 crore across 300 localities in Bengaluru and elsewhere in Karnataka. At a time when state actors such as the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and the Labour Department were struggling to run food kitchens as demanded by civil society activists, Mercy Mission set up 33 food kitchens at different locations within the city and prepared an estimated 11.8 lakh meals. The volunteers of the coalition facilitated the distribution of 12.3 lakh food packets by governmental and non-governmental agencies. On any given day, as many as 500 volunteers were out on the streets of Bengaluru. 

The Mercy Mission also set up a helpline where volunteers handled thousands of phone calls and noted down requests and requirements. Medicines worth Rs.3.94 lakh were distributed free of cost; at a time when there was a severe shortage of blood in blood banks, volunteers donated blood. 

When the Shramik Special trains began operations on May 3, the Mercy Mission took charge of the welfare of the migrant workers at railway stations and “mustering centres” (spaces where the workers gathered before they boarded the Shramik Specials). Until May 31, more than 1,75,000 migrant workers who left on the 107 trains were provided with food packets as well as kits containing essentials such as slippers, diapers and sanitary napkins. 

Transporting COVID-19 deceased 

Among the notable operations of the Mercy Mission is their transporting the COVID-19 deceased in Bengaluru. Volunteers of the coalition, dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE), transferred the bodies of the dead from hospitals to crematoriums and cemeteries. 

In undertaking all these activities, this NGO coalition received generous funding from private companies such as Wipro, and also raised a significant amount of funds through the networks of its member NGOs.

According to Vijay Grover, an independent journalist who has been involved with relief work through the lockdown: “The scale of work that the Mercy Mission did matched the efforts of the Labour Department and other government agencies in mitigating widespread hunger.” A Labour Department official who was supervising the distribution of rations during the lockdown said: “The Mission did a tremendous job in distributing food.” Among others who appreciated the work of the coalition was Deputy Chief Minister C.N. Ashwath Narayan. 

A senior railway official who was supervising the Shramik Specials said: “They even did the jobs of porters, carrying the luggage of elderly travellers. Amidst all the bad publicity that Muslims were victims of, they emerged as the true corona warriors in Bengaluru.”

The “bad publicity” that the railway official referred to was the vilification of the Muslim community in the aftermath of the Tablighi Jamaat markaz in Nizamuddin which emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot in March, and the subsequent communalisation of the pandemic. Tanveer Ahmed, a coordinator at Mercy Mission, said: “The communalisation of the pandemic was frustrating. We have beaten this false narrative through the medium of love and this was a big motivation for me to help. I did not come across any of the so-called ‘nationalists’ while we were out there on the streets.”

In Mercy Mission’s activities, one can also see that a sense of social activism has pervaded the Muslim community, buoyed perhaps by the notion of “constitutional nationalism” that has struck deep roots among the Muslim youths in the wake of the widespread anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Acts (CAA) protests that began in December last year. 

While the core leadership of Mercy Mission is drawn from established NGOs who have been working in charitable activities for several years, the wider circle of volunteers was drawn from the corps of educated Muslim youths, who had been active in the anti-CAA protests. 

As concerns about the pandemic began to spread even as the anti-CAA protests were continuing in full swing, many of these protest networks quickly reoriented themselves towards relief activities. Vinay Sreenivasa, a lawyer working with the Alternative Law Forum, said: “Muslims were determined to work possibly due to the anti-CAA networks that they had built and the propaganda about the community.” 

As M.A. Shariff, trustee of the Lifeline Foundation and one of the key members of Mercy Mission, noted: “The period from December 2019 to March 2020 was extremely harsh on Indian Muslims as they faced major debacles like the passage of the CAA, the Delhi riots and the hateful propaganda that followed the Tablighi Jamaat incident. However, the response by them has been extremely heartening as they have chosen to rise to the occasion negating these setbacks and lead the nation’s fight against the pandemic from the forefront.”

Sanya Khan, a volunteer of Mercy Mission, arranged diesel for the generators at Tripura Vasani, a convention hall that served as a mustering centre. Without the diesel-fuelled generators, migrant workers at these centres could not even recharge their mobile phones. In a conversation with Frontline , she hoped that the mission’s work would change the perception of Muslims. 

“Often I would hear from these workers who were mainly from north Indian states: ‘ Madamji, aap hamare liye itna kar rahe hain, par aapke bare mein kya kya bolte hain ’ (Madam, you are doing so much for us, but all kinds of things are said about you [Muslims]).”

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