A Day in Sonipat, a City Saved by a Few Good Men and Women

The civil society emerges as the one providing relief and the government, strangely, is the one showering flowers on workers.

Sonipat: The country has come to a standstill with a nationwide lockdown, with the privileged ones of us working from home.

In our privilege, we wonder who is running this organised lockdown. We look across the road at the police officers on duty day and night, the sanitation workers still on the street cleaning, the vegetable sellers going from door to door, and try to fathom how the chaos has pushed the limits of local administration.

As teachers in a premier law university situated in Sonipat, we wanted to contribute to the relief work. So we decided to take a tour of our district and find out how.

Our tour begins with local NGOs involved in food distribution.

Govind Rasoi, at the heart of town, cooks around 10,000 meals per day within the urban limits of Sonipat. As a philanthropic organisation already providing free food in hospitals, they are the biggest and smoothest operation in the district.

When we enter the premises, someone sprays sanitizer on our hands. We see workers with masks making rotis on a rotating machine, volunteers packing vegetables, and fragrant pulao being stirred in huge pots. They receive donations from the community, which are used creatively.

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For instance, extra lemons are turned into pickle, and menus are set according to what comes in. A clean and efficient process. Yet we wonder, why not distribute dry rations once a week, rather than cooked food twice a day?

We get varied answers. The Deputy Commissioner of Sonipat explains that while dealing with diverse communities, it is difficult to determine kind and quantity of raw material requirements. It was critical to ensure that no one sleeps hungry, even if that meant more manpower and resources.

For instance, factory workers living away from their families, rent a room together to sleep in turns. Now all of them are stuck in that room with no cooking apparatus.

Some poor families use fodder or small refillable cylinders to cook, but now this fuel is difficult to obtain. Hence cooked meals become a viable option.

There is more to this.

Nikhil Madan, a local NGO person told us, “People are inclined to stockpile the ration, and not consume it. Or they try to sell for cash. This renders our efforts futile.”

Migrants wait for a means of transport to travel to their native places during the fourth phase of the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, at Kundali Industrial Area in Sonipat, Monday, May 18, 2020. Photo: PTI

His statement reminded us of Poor Economics by Nobel winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, that speaks of how poor people make economic choices while they walk the tightrope of survival. Storage of rations may seem irrational and purposeless, since in pre-coronavirus days we have never tried to understand the mindset of someone who does not have a guarantee of food for the next week.

The crisis has unearthed these faultlines, shown us our own ignorance.

We ask, ‘How do you know who is hungry in the district?” We are told that all the NGOs distributing food in Sonipat district run one WhatsApp group. Any hunger call in the city gets shared there, and the nearest NGO to the location responds to ensure fast delivery of food.

Next on our itinerary are the temporary shelters where stranded migrant workers are placed. Varun Singal, a local businessman accompanied us. We asked him how and why he got involved with relief work. He replied, “In such a time of crisis, businessmen must help. More than salaried middle class, we have the required capital and infrastructure. When I went to the ADC, Dinesh Singh Yadav, with a donation of Rs 11 lakhs, he told me instead of money we need devoted people who will assist in coordinating a relief plan. So, I started running a kitchen and offering 2,500 food packages daily. I also visit all the shelter homes and take other essentials like sanitation kits, soaps, and biscuits for children.”

As we reached Satyam Shelter Home, run by the local MP, it was a pleasing sight to find purified water for drinking, new mattresses, clean rooms, a TV and a playground with basketball. Amenities and space were plenty for the 90 people staying here. Yoga and meditation in the morning and halwa puri on Ashtami…this place looked like a summer camp.

However, the situation was different at the next shelter in Hasanpur village. Here only Muslim inmates stay.

Why are Hindus and Muslims kept in different shelters? The answer dismays us.

‘Everyone is worried that Muslims might be carrying the virus. After the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi.’

The administration did not want any conflicts, so thought it best to organise them in separate shelter. The local administration feels that Muslim community is uncooperative in terms of disclosing travel history or rejecting alcohol based sanitisers, but we can witness the resentment and fear in the common Hindu villager, NGO worker or police.

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The WhatsApp propaganda has become the truth. Muslims are now villains – they are purveyors of “Corona Jihad”, spreading the disease wilfully. In neighbouring UP, villages have put up boards banning entry of Muslim sellers. In Haryana, as Varun Singhla tells us, no one is ready to take food to them apart from his own team, who take food packages twice a day to this shelter.

He shakes his head in dismay and states, “The whole country has come together to face the crisis, but Hindu and Muslims are divided.”

Housed in the shelters are the leftover migrant workers who had set homewards on foot. Thousands of them passed through Sonipat in the last week of March, walking the routes from Himachal, Punjab and Haryana to UP and MP.

Trucks are parked on either side of a road near Kundali Industrial area, during the fourth phase of the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, in Sonipat, Monday, May 18, 2020. Photo: PTI

The local administration tried to help as many as possible; they offered food and drinking water, soaps and the chance to bathe, medication and tests and then ferried them across to their home states in the middle of the night via buses, trucks and boats.

Listening to the stories, very much like international immigrant films like Dirty Pretty, we wondered what the migrant population would have found at home after these hazardous journeys?

Surely the reality of unemployment, debts and starvation that they wanted to leave behind when they migrated to distant lands has not changed? How will they pass the next few months without work?

Towards the end of day, we meet the Sonipat District Collector and asked him what issues he perceived to be pertinent. He is clear that containing the virus is the main challenge. To check for symptoms and track travel histories. Ascertaining asymptomatic carriers, and following the protocol of testing so that we know the ground reality of the virus outbreak in the district. Sonipat is next to Delhi and cases everywhere are on the rise.

The last visit is with the Additional Deputy Commissioner, Dinesh Singh Yadav, who shows us several boxes of juice, honey, sweets stored in his office.

“This is to keep up the morale of the front fighters,” he tells us. “The heroes of this lockdown are the police personal, the patwaris, medical staff, and sanitation workers. I take the opportunity to present boxes of honey, juices, face masks, gloves, and sanitizers as a morale booster. We also invite members of society to show their appreciation to vegetable sellers, milkmen, newspaper distributes, sanitation workers by showering flower petals on them.”

We ask him, while NGOS are doing their part, where is the state presence in terms of money and materials?

He tells us that crisis creates heroes. “This crisis has helped generate sympathy and goodwill for the poor. The civil society, business community and local administration are on the forefront together. Since the timeframe of the lockdown remains unknown, the state resources are kept in reserve and civil society donations are running the show.”

He adds, “Civil servants are part of the society and good will creation is a part of their job. Having served for 25 years, they must be able to encash their connection within communities and encourage the wealthy to support others during adversity, especially in a district like Sonipat, with prosperous industries in Rai and Kundali.”

We wonder though, would heroes be necessary if the state governed as it is supposed to?

Unlike countries like France or Germany where governments are following protocol and democratic governance dictums, we are not sure of our national strategy to fight the virus or to keep people from starving or to boost the economy back.

In this scenario the civil society emerges as the one providing relief and the government, strangely, is the one showering flowers or asking people to sound bells and vessels. Seems like a bizarre exchange programme.

Sameena Dalwai and Asmita Sing teach at the Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, Haryana.