When Chennai-based life coach Veenapani Shivkumar Seksaria saw on Facebook that a friend was distributing watermelons to the underserved after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, she was alarmed. Watermelon, after all, isn’t the most energy-boosting food out there. So she decided to engage with her friend and suggest that she distribute something a bit more useful.
She knew, from her days as an Army wife, that shakkar paara, a carb-rich, deep-fried, sugary snack, was popular with soldiers during the Kargil war, and decided to start distributing the snack in Chennai as a self-funded project along with her friend, Dr Sumithra Prasad of Chennai-based NGO the Dorai Foundation. They did this through the organisation’s network of women self-help groups in Chennai.
But the duo soon realised the need on the ground was far more urgent than they initially thought, as the hunger couldn’t be solved by the one-time distribution of a single food item. “A lot of hard-working individuals who were suddenly out of jobs were suffering from a loss of dignity, they did not want to queue up for food,” Seksaria tells ThePrint, “so we decided that providing them with provisions for a month would be more prudent.”
With the aim of reaching people who are often invisible to the more privileged and who live where government aid hasn’t reached, Seksaria roped in Swapna Pandit Chawla, an active member and former president of the Air Force Wives Welfare Association, who is well connected to NGOs and activists working in the remotest regions in the country.
They started identifying the most vulnerable communities throughout the country with the help of ground workers from their partner NGOs, and supplied provisions to communities that found themselves out of the Public Distribution Network.
Even though she started The Shakkar Para Project (TSPP) on 30 March as a self-funded project, Seksaria invited funding online through Milaap on 4 April. TSPP has since reached around 5573 families in 14 states.
Customised food kits for different regions
The volunteers go door-to-door to identify families who need help and provides doorstep delivery of customised relief kits so nobody has to stand in a queue for food. “Some people wanted rice, some wanted wheat. In Assam there was demand for tea, in Bihar, sattu and soya vadi in West Bengal,” Seksaria says, explaining how she customised her kits in accordance with regional needs.
It’s not always easy. “Our partners in Assam identified 300 families in Jorhat, and I didn’t have money to get food for all. In that moment I felt helpless,” she says. She resolved to reach every last family, by reducing kit sizes and focusing on the areas they were working in, learning through trial and error on-ground to create maximum impact.
And through all this, she, too, is learning. “Initially, I did take photos while distributing food to people, but people don’t want to be photographed while accepting food, so I became sensitive to it and stopped.”
Reaching the remotest areas
“I wanted to reach people who are not getting help from anywhere,” Seksaria emphasises. Her project has thus far supplied rations to people in remote districts like Purba Medinipur in West Bengal, Latehar in Jharkhand, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, as well as to Assamese and Bangladeshi refugees in Dimapur, Nagaland and isolated villages in Assam’s Jorhat, to name a few.
Not only are these communities geographically isolated and not easily accessible by road, the people who are in need here are also the poorest of the poor, whose plight amid lockdown has seen little to no coverage in mainstream media.
“During assessment, I target places where there’s an immediate need and we can provide a short-term solution,” Chawla explains. For instance, she got in touch with Last Wilderness, an NGO working in Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, that has helped rehabilitate the Pardhi tribe through education and soft skills training.
In the absence of tourists and restriction on foraging, the fear was that the tribe would take to hunting and poaching again. “Relief work is extremely important because these efforts have kept them away from dacoity and thuggery, and current circumstances would have driven them to crime again,” Chawla explains.
That the need is met immediately has proven to be immensely helpful in remote regions of Jharkhand where starvation deaths are frequent, according to Aakash Ranjan, a volunteer with Right to Food in Ranchi.
Through the project, Ranjan has provided rations to the poorest and most oppressed people in various regions of the state. “We targeted the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVGTs) of Jharkhand, people with no ration card, who are so isolated that even in the villages there’s only one house in 200-500 m,” he says. “Rag pickers, people who stay on the outskirts, villages formed only 20-30 years ago that aren’t even notified, they don’t fall under the ambit of public distribution systems, so activists on the ground identified some 500 such families to whom we provided monthly supplies,” Ranjan explains.
The project is now working with activists in West Bengal to provide relief to those impacted by Cyclone Amphan.
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