Jeevan Rath – the wheel that keeps spinning bringing relief and response to the most vulnerable

Collective efforts have left footprints stretching from Mumbai across India as volunteers and partners who supported migrant families, people stuck on the road and daily wage earners to reach home continue to reach families and children.

Stephanie Raison
Women stand holding plastic bowls and looking towards a mini truck carrying ration supplies.
15 August 2020

We all saw the photographs in the media, and we heard some of the stories. A mass of people, many wearing only flip flops on their feet, walking for hours under the sun, some carrying children, and sometimes not even knowing if they were going in the right direction. Many of us watched this unfold via the small screen of our phone, enclosed by our four walls Tweeting Stay Home, Stay Safe.  For millions though those walls soon collapsed and some of the hardest hit were in India’s financial capital, Mumbai.

After almost two months of the nation-wide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, more than 1,200,000 migrant workers who without daily wage jobs were unable to pay their rents in Mumbai. Without anywhere safe to stay they were heading home by train, bus, truck and often just on foot. Approximately 30,000- 40,000 migrants were leaving Mumbai daily.

Even at 10:30 p.m. messages continued to ping on the phones of development workers across Maharashtra. A powerful movement was being set in motion. Some 55 organizations from across the State had collectively decided that they were going to do something, together with one goal – to help those most in need through Jeevan Rath - relief on wheels.

Two children holding a container of food.
Jeevan Rath India Water Portal
Children stranded along with their parents or relatives received nutritious meals and snacks while waiting outside railway stations, bus terminus and on roadsides.

What can we do to help migrants who are making the long, hard walk back home?

UNICEF Maharashtra WASH specialist, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Emergency focal point Yusuf Kabir recalls the initial conversations that sparked the wheels into motion.

“We started exchanging ideas through the NGO networks and were aiming to avoid duplication of efforts. we wanted to reach the most vulnerable and everybody was keen to contribute. A movement started to take shape and we began contributing our expertise and networks while also raising funds, as well as accepting funds from people across India that donated and also of goods from private sector, to support the needs of migrants across the state,” says Yusuf. He also thanks Hungry Wheels who provided the mini trucks that took to the streets immediately.

Volunteers, and especially young people, put on their masks and took to roads in mini trucks distributing water, electrolytes, food to carry on a journey like peanuts or fruit, bread, Thepla (a flat bread with jaggery), soap and sanitary pads made by local women’s collectives.

Jeevan Rath partners and volunteers travelled across Mumbai and Maharashtra, including the length of road between Pune, a hub for migrant workers, and Nashik, another hub. They met families, including children, sitting under trees seeking shade from the scorching sun as they journeyed north towards their home states. Some had used all their savings for precarious transport, while others were walking. Jeevan Rath provided clean water, food including non-perishable snacks for the two to three-day journey and arranged transport by bus.

A truck packed with 80 people heading to Bihar was flagged down by Jeevan Rath volunteers in rural Maharashtra. "Without working, how will we earn enough money to get food for ourselves and our family and pay for our shelter?" one of the men shared, saying that this is the reason why they were leaving for their home state. The Jeevan Rath team provided them with rations and enough food for a few days travel.

Women wait to receive rations from a mini truck on the roadside.
Jeevan Rath India Water Portal
Jeevan Rath on the road distributing water and food to people on foot.

Jeevan Rath 2.0

The wheels kept rolling as more and more people left behind the sea breeze of Mumbai, heading north. As the needs of the migrants evolved so too did Jeevan Rath, with version 2.0 aiming to not only provide relief to those already on the move but to help more people travel safely. To connect with people needing help a functional virtual call centre was established by RISE Infinity Foundation, UNICEF partner and the Secretariat of Jeevan Rath. It was up and running quickly with three shifts of four people to easily handle the more than 500 calls a day.

A rush of calls started to come in as some trains were cancelled and many people were left stranded. Jeevan Rath connected with the team of Bollywood actor Sonu Sood who organized a bus to Uttar Pradesh, while United Way Mumbai organized insurance and cash transfers for the journey. In just one example of the many safe journeys, 29 passengers including 11 children are now safe at home with their families in Uttar Pradesh after a 14 day quarantine.

After 100 days of Jeevan Rath, some 67,000 people had registered via the call centre for transport assistance and 94.2 per cent have reached, with the others either on the way or waiting to travel. Most people on the move worked in construction, industrial labour or were students. The platform supported more than 30,000 people on move to travel by  networking with NGO alliances MTSN, IGSS, SWAN and CoaST.

A man carrying a baby stands in front of a bus waiting to board with other men and women wearing masks.
Jeevan Rath India Water Portal
Workers and families from Chhattisgarh prepare to board a bus home.

A call came in via the phone of a security guard at a construction site. Workers from Chhattisgarh state hadn’t received their wages and their employer wasn’t allowing them to leave for their home villages. The workers were all worried about their families, especially children, back in their village. Jeevan Rath volunteers lodged a complaint with authorities and the employer paid the wages. Jeevan Rath then arranged a bus to take the workers to the border with Chhattisgarh, while a lawyers collective paid for train tickets to their final destinations.

“When even our employer did not help us, strangers like you have been a savior. We did not know anybody in this City and people refused to believe whatever we said - they thought we were lying. We are really grateful for all the pains the YUVA - Jeevan Rath team took for us.”

Migrant worker from Chhattisgargh
Workers at a construction site standing talking to a Jeevan Rath volunteer.
Jeevan Rath India Water Portal
Some 38 migrants were stuck in Pune when Jeevan Rath partner CYDA came into contact with them and arranged their transportation and food through support from Jeevan Rath and SwissAid. On 24 June they left Pune and they reached home in Chhattisgargh on 26 June 2020.

Relief on wheels continues to roll through Mumbai

Mumbai’s tiffin wallahs are world famous, with even tourists coming from across the globe to see how they navigate the traffic on bicycles to deliver hot meals stored in identical looking metal tins with handles and name tags, to deliver lunch to offices across India’s financial capital. During lockdown all tiffins stopped and so did the income. The trickle down was felt too among the sidewalk breakfast sector and others.

Matunga Labour Camp is home to families from Tamil Nadu who survive by selling south Indian breakfast like idli, vada and dosa. The women’s day begins at 4 a.m. preparing the standard breakfast fare, and just before dawn the men pack it with the requisite accompaniments of sambar and chutney carrying it all the way to Mumbai to sell near railway stations and offices.

Nambi Thevar, 65 and Esakki Thayi, 64 were living in Matunga and wanted to return to their home in Madurai, where their daughter, a widow, had just lost a child due to a brain tumor. The Jeevan Rath team’s dedication and persistence ensured that they obtained all the requisite paperwork for the journey across two states, securing safe travel and also making sure the couple, like other families in the camp, were provided with sufficient food and other necessities, such as hygiene kits with soap, toothpaste and other items.

Jeevan Rath volunteer with RISE, Catherine Fernandes even went in person to meet the couple several times and ensure that they managed to get on a train home. They are now safe and being supported by government services in Tamil Nadu.

“When I saw the tears in Esakki’s eyes while leaving I told her not to cry anymore, but the words she said to me stay with me even now,” says Catherine.

"Beti yeh khushi ka aasun isko rukho math - I don’t have anything to give you except every drop of my happy tears are rolling out to bless you and your team. You might have helped many people to reach their native place, but you won’t know how much it means to me. I am only alive because of you.”

Esakki Thayi, 64 year-old woman who returned home safely
A man volunteer wearing mask and gloves holding a clip board gestures to other volunteers to bring rations for a line of tribal women in a village.
A Jeevan Rath coordinator distributing ration kits to women in a tribal village in Vasai, Maharashtra during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeevan Rath 3.0 needs your help

Jeevan Rath has not stopped turning, and as Maharashtra continues to report the highest number of COVID-19 cases in India there are still millions in the state needing support. The initiative is now entering Jeevan Rath 3.0 and there is still much to be done to meet the immediate critical needs of the most vulnerable. Organizations like RISE Infinity Foundation, Resilient Foundation, Life Foundation and Citizens Association for Child Rights (CACR) have started integrating vegetables and perishable items into ration kits and have begun early recovery measures, reaching out to the tribal hinterlands.

Just outside Mumbai stretch the informal settlements of makeshift shelters that house nomadic tribal families whose livelihoods were also hit by the lockdown. Not many organizations venture into the unsanitary conditions of these settlements that lack basic facilities. However, Jeevan Rath partners CACR and Red in New Green (RING) took the initiative to reach out to this community, to visit them and to provide rations and hygiene kits to meet their basic needs.

“When no one was ready to even look at us, help us, the Jeevan Rath team supported us. We are happy that we have someone to turn to in this time of need”

Tribal community member

In the same way Gandhi’s chakra or spinning wheel turns, Jeevan Rath has woven together people who have given threads of their time, goods, money hands or voice - to weave a safety blanket stretching to keep warm those who need it most. We thank them.

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