PROJECT C – Taking Care

Navi Mumbai | 31st March 2020 to 30th June 2020

25th March 2020. The nation went into a complete lockdown for 21 days, following a global upsurge in Covid-19 deaths. The next few weeks were anticipated to be highly risky, from the social contraction point of view, and hence the decision.

One of the most hard hit cities was Mumbai. As the number of active cases swelled, and people prepared themselves to shield against the fast-spreading pandemic, our policemen put duty before self. They were now required to contribute longer hours on the streets to ensure that social distancing was being followed with the rigor that the situation demanded.

KMI, as a company, took this as a wake-up call and began an endeavour, Project C, to serve those that serve us continually- despite the health risk to themselves and their families; despite the longer hours; and unruffled by people who expressed their irritation at being inconvenienced, stopped and questioned or deterred from being adventurous.

The entire city was faced with a new situation. Adapting would take a while. In the meanwhile, the men in uniform were entrusted with a difficult task- to control crowding on the road and stop people from venturing out, even if that meant temporary inconvenience to them, with a view to protect them from a greater potential harm. This was difficult because it meant receiving flak from the very people they were working to protect; made more difficult by the fact that they were exposing themselves to huge risks to do so- a task that required high levels of commitment to service, and our policemen were doing that with stoic grit and dedication.

We, at KMI, began with a humble, homely effort to feed them a breakfast meal a day. This was done, after required permissions were taken from the area Police, and with all necessary precautions. The mornings began with hurried preparations of some modest suji upma or dalia upma and some tea, that we would pack in containers, and distribute using paper cups, bowls and plastic spoons. Our four-wheeled friend became our thorough companion- and was renamed the KMI Helpline vehicle. These mornings were satisfying and enlightening, in ways we never imagined.

We saw the Police force (men and women both) work 24X7 in Checkposts, Nakas, bikes, patrol cars, on the highways to control movement of vehicles and people during the lockdown to control the spread of the disease without the fear of getting infected themselves. We saw them trying to cover their faces with masks, dupattas, saree Anchals and rumals etc. whatever they could use to protect us from getting infected. We saw municipality working day and night in protecting the masses around the whole area from covid detection, to treatment in hospitals, quarantining infected people and barricading buildings where patients were found.

As we scoured the streets, we became aware of more people who needed help. The sweepers and cleaners, who were dedicated to keeping the city clean, during this crisis, also deserved service. Often, we would find single, destitute people on the roads- some bordering on mental instability- maybe due to the lone struggle they were fighting against the Covid- a disease that had suddenly raised its ugly head out of nowhere, and thrown them off their feet. They all needed some care. Soon, our endeavours led us to believe that while the policemen and sweepers on the road were happy with a breakfast meal served, there might be others who needed financial help. We roamed the city from Ghansoli to Thane, looking for such, and helping them with whatever we had. The multitude of faces that we saw during this time will forever be etched in our hearts- because they taught us something.

In those faces, we saw poor eye sight due to cataract but lingering hope and a smile. We saw a lot of gratitude in those eyes- never asking for more, rather happy with the little we could provide them. We saw togetherness. We didn’t see greed. We saw children of these slum dwellers who looked happy and playful in spite of the little comforts they had and effortlessly playing the whole day. The smile on their faces and the hands that were raised in blessing will be a picture engraved in KMI Memories for the times to come. Except one sick person we saw close to Hotel Sarovar Portico on the mahape - Dombivili highway we didn’t see anyone who needed medical attention and they all looked quite fit and healthy. We informed police control room and the police arrived in less than 10 mins but it could have been he was drunk and not really sick we assumed looking at the way he was walking.

As the days unfolded, we realized that humanity was still alive. Contrary to the grim pictures on social media, we didn’t see too much of hunger in the bastis and jhuggi-Jhopris (slums) that we visited, due to the heartwarming efforts of the municipality, individuals and freelance groups for their hard work in trying to feed the poor in these areas every day from daal-Chawal, khichdi, roti-sabzi, wada pav, chai etc. twice a day in the entire stretch from Kalwa to Turbhe a 17kms stretch across the Thane-Belapur Road (TTC Industrial Estate) on either side of the highway.

25th of May, 2020 was another landmark day in our journey, and it will forever remain etched in our hearts. It was the auspicious occasion of Eid. To make this day a little brighter, amidst the grim times, we decided to visit Mumbra, a Muslim-dominated area in Mumbai. We set out with the desire to bring a smile, and a filled stomach to those who were less fortunate, on this auspicious day. The place was crowded, with many people trying to find some shade, on the pavements, along the streets. We hoped to be their shade in some way, even if it was just for a day. With that hope, we went about handing Rs. 500 notes, to as many people there, as we could (with a total contribution of Rs. 12,500 at the end of the day. There were lone strangers, sitting in corners, looking isolated and disillusioned. And then there was this handicapped old man, on a wheelchair, who was being looked after by his son.

There was another person walking the road barefoot - the road beneath his feet would have felt like fire. What a joy it was to see their faces light up with hope, when we offered them some money! We hoped that the little we could provide would make their respective roads a little less hard and their journeys a little more easy, during these testing times. They all wished us Eid Mubarak, and whether or not what we offered was enough, it brought a huge smile to their faces, on this special day.

We were not restricting the day to Muslims though. On our way back, we saw some labourers, amongst whom we distributed some cash, and also separately amongst their children- because everybody deserves to have a filling meal and a contended smile, no matter what the occasion is. Whatever we could do that day brought back so much happiness and satisfaction that Eid 2020 felt like the best and most uniquely celebrated Eid of our life, ever. The idea, more than distributing cash, was to spread some joy and bring more smiles.

We also saw the yearning to go home, the eagerness of the migrants, of the many numbers of daily wage labours from other states to reach back to their native. We saw very long queues of people applying for medical fitness certificate to be able to go home when the government allowed people to move back to their natives. We saw a lot of people walk on foot in groups to reach their hometowns after waiting for months in these bastis in the absence of any earnings. What we didn’t see was worry or fear. Rather, we saw strength and determination- a strong resolve to go back home.

They led us to a realization. We all came here to this state leaving the comfort of our homes as migrants from far off places to earn a living, learn, grow and also take back something to our hometowns to build a house, repair an existing parental home, take care of old parents, help a family member setup their life, a help a sister get married and many more such dreams that may one day come true ... so all the little challenges, risks, hard work and pain is all so worth the effort.

It also led us to the realization that it doesn’t take much to be happy in life, to be able to wear a smile on our faces. With practically nothing to live off, a dangerous enemy lurking in the background, no money to guard from potential risk or treatment if infected, the slum dwellers could still manage smiles of gratitude and prayers and blessings. And in their fight to live, the poor migrant workers left us a valuable lesson of strength and resilience.

We gave them what we could- some modest financial help. They gave us life lessons in strength, resilience, gratitude and hope- in return. The lines between rich and poor dwindled away and gave birth instead to a sense of greater, universal connectedness- our biggest takeaway from Project C.