Covid-19 DEFDialogue is a special series initiated by Digital Empowerment Foundation where the Founder & Director Osama Manzar connects with key individuals within the DEF network in 600 locations across 25 states. The interaction will help find out how COVID-19 and the lockdown situation has impacted their areas along with the measures being undertaking to tackle it.

Episode 1: Building circular economies amid COVID- 19 pandemic

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation, spoke with—Kalyan Akkipeddi, co-founder of Proto Village, a prototype of an ideal community living. Set in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, the second driest district in India, Proto Village is a rural community built for and by the villagers.

“The local authorities are severely underprepared and underequipped and it is very important to   securing masks and sanitizers, spreading awareness about the disease in the regional language and talk about the measures required to control the pandemic.

We have set up hand-sanitizer making unit, along with a station of masks production. These are being distributed to the frontline health workers, police officers and locals from surrounding villages among others.  We are also distributing essential kit of food items to those in need.

Around 200 litres of hand-sanitizers have already been distributed to the frontline workers—but as many as 10,000 N95 masks, 7200 surgical masks, 200 PPE kits and 10,000 pair of gloves are needed—that will help in building an inventory for future use.

I will stress upon the fact that frequent monitoring and assessment through volunteers and ASHA workers will help us determine the trends in spread, and the patterns will help the administration to deploy resources where it’s needed the most.

We are also producing short videos in multiple languages to give information on social distancing, sustaining individuals by growing their own food, do’s and don’ts amid Covid-19 pandemic and fighting misinformation. Moreover, the primary focus is on building local circular economies.”

Episode 2: Supply-chain bottleneck amid country-wide lockdown

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation, spoke with—Gurav Vats, head of ICT and innovations at Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals. They talk about the network of Indian Society of Agri-business Professionals (ISAP) and Farmer Produce Organizations (FPO) amongst farmers and how Gaurav and his team is working in a situation such as the COVID pandemic, when the country is in a complete lock down.

“ISAP is a large network of agriculture and allied sector of professionals in India and acts as a bridge between Indian rural communities and other government corporate entities.

Due to COVID-19 pandemic the whole world is facing consequences. The farmers and the migrant labourers are the ones who are largely affected. The supply-chain of the farmer’s produce both in inter and intra-state is pretty much disrupted.

I and my team have constantly been putting efforts to talk to the state authorities to get passes for the mobility of the vehicles. Luckily, the government has allowed around 80 FPOs to supply farmer’s produce to the end consumers.

The state agencies have been very helpful. In Karnataka the government has allowed the supply of fruits and vegetables to the end consumers. The FPO members have been assigned areas within the states and with the help of district collectors and marketing committees they have fixed reasonable prices for the commodities.

This has helped them opt for fair practices and there is no hoarding of goods. Similarly, in Maharashtra, they are able to offer vegetable baskets through 7 to 8 outlets to the consumers for Rs 600.

In Karnataka, ISAP has promoted around 50 such organizations and in Haryana 11 to 12 farmer companies to carry out the same model. The areas in which it has been effective is—Karnal, Kurukshetra, GT road belt , Charkhi Dadri etc. In Karnataka districts like Bagalkot, Bijapur, Dharwad, Hubli (Northern Karnataka) and in Southern districts, Shimoga, Coorg, Mangalore, Chikmangloor the presence of FPO is pretty active.

The farmers keep asking support for the intra state movement of the produce. The farmers who produce Pineapples in Shimoga and Mangoes in Dharwad, have asked for FPOs’ help for distributing the produce in cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

The situation has not been quite favourable and this is one of the biggest logistical challenges—I, my team and the farmers are facing. I am trying to get this resolved with the help of state authorities. The buyers around Delhi were identified as the one who couldn’t get connected with the FPOs in Shimoga and Dharwad.

April-May are the harvesting seasons and due to the lockdown the crops can go wasted if they aren’t harvested. Furthermore, the migration of labourers has created shortage of man-power. Lack of labourers has even affected loading and unloading of trucks. I hope the government relaxes the lockdown in the days to come.

According to the study, about 4 lakh trucks got stuck on the highway and the stock couldn’t be unloaded because of the lack of labourers. These are one of the major challenges farming communities are facing currently.

I have been receiving SOS calls from the farmers as they are anxious about their crops perishing, and I sincerely hope that the lockdown gets relaxed and the harvest doesn’t go waste.”

Episode 3: Migrant labourers in Goa and Politics against non-Goans

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation, spoke with—Sharada Kerkar from Goa. An artist, thinker and an activist, and a curator at India’s first private museum in Goa- Museum of Goa.

“According to my observation, the migrant workers are the worst affected in Goa, especially in Saligao. In Goa, thousands of labourers who are daily wagers, are stranded and struggling to make their ends meet.

Despite government’s initiatives to convert stadiums into shelter homes, provide cooked meals to the migrant labourers—it has been challenging because many labourers are not readily willing to move into shelter homes—because they are not centrally located.

4-5 people are constantly working on identifying pockets and mapping the areas to find the migrant labourers through their network. Till now around 17-18 such pockets have been identified.

It is important to identify the number of stomachs which have to be fed. We have to provide them with groceries and essential items.

The government is in a mix of politics and it has been pretty ignorant about the migrants as they are non-voters. This explains the politician’s lack of attention towards these migrant workers. I strongly believe that the government is not incapable—it is just apathy.

It is definitely a sad scene. The migrant workers who build houses, do fishing—are disrespected when they need support the most. These workers insist and reiterate their need to go back and are hopeful that the government will make some arrangements.

The migrant labourers like in other parts of the country are facing discrimination and are not very hopeful of the government supporting them. Due to the lack of respect and attention paid to them in this time of crisis, there’s a good chance that they will not return. This could invariably impact tourism and will make people go back to mining or agricultural activities to keep up the economy of the state.”

Episode 4: Ration through OTP in Unconnected India

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation, spoke with—Irfan Khan, a Soochnapreneur  and Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC) Coordinator—on the problems faced by the villagers of Raybaka—a small village located in Alwar district of Rajasthan, where even a motorable road does not exist.

“Off late, biometric to avail ration has been stopped and instead OTP mechanism has been put in place. Since this the only option, people are unable to avail it because either they don’t have a registered number or a phone.

The few who do, haven’t updated their numbers in their government ids, especially aadhar cards—and this is one of the biggest issues that the villagers are facing.

I have been trying to find a way to help them by adding new contact details or updating them against their names online, but this has not been possible for all.

I have also requested the Panchayat/ local authorities to consider providing ration to people who are unable to update their contact details, and as a temporary measure their names could be noted down offline—and the same can be updated online once the beneficiaries’ details are updated on the government portal.

The other issue is that the business is shut and even the basic amenities are sold for a higher price. The daily wagers don’t have money on them to buy provisions. The banks have a long queue but withdrawal of money is limited since the banks are open for a limited time.

Being a bank correspondent, I have initiated a process of ‘home-delivering banking services’ to help people of the surrounding villages. I now provide door-to-door facility, especially to the elderly and differently-abled people by giving them their money. This money comes either from government schemes or pensions etc.—and I get it delivered so that they do not have to step out of their respective homes.

Many migrant workers and truck drivers who have returned to the village, have just gotten their respective names registered, but haven’t been tested.

Also another issue which is popping up is the harvesting of crops. It is prohibited and has put the farmers in a vulnerable situation.  If the lockdown doesn’t ease out, the harvest will go waste.

I have also distributed 4500 masks to the people in a slum area and have arranged for ration for them. I have been continuously trying and working on convincing the local authorities to at least provide them with the essentials, so they can survive.”

Episode 5: The Peak is Yet to come

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation, spoke with—Saleema Razvi, who is a Research Economist at Copenhagen Consensus Centre. The dialogue covers issues like lack of proper healthcare infrastructure, Covid19’s effect on economy—and most importantly, if quarantine and lockdown are the only ways to stop coronavirus.

“India with regards to the spread of the virus is nowhere close to peaking—and currently it is only at the tip of the iceberg. The dynamics of the country—the lifestyle of the people is quite conducive to facilitate the spread of virus and the transmission. India is undoubtedly a heavily populated country and more than half of its population suffers from respiratory ailment.

The status of the country is not at all prepared to face the pandemic, especially in terms of infrastructure. India doesn’t have enough hospitals, beds, ICUs, nurses etc.

The decision of the lockdown by the government albeit is a positive step, and yet it cannot be perceived as the solution to control or stop the spread of the pandemic. It is a good option and one of the measures required to flatten the curve.

It is largely applicable to the middle-class and the upper middle-class families—who have shelter, food and a place to isolate themselves. The poorest of the poor, the daily wagers’ lives are in jeopardy, as they have no money and food.

Forget Sanitization, the poor have to venture out on the streets in search of food. Lockdown doesn’t work for such people at all.

The current situation is self-explanatory and the onus is on the citizens. The people have to stay indoors, be hygienic and stay safe—but on the contrary, the poor are deprived of even these basic amenities. It should be the state government’s responsibility to put welfare in place. They should set up health camps—especially in the areas where there are dense settlements—and provide food, water, shelter on a daily basis for the people—so they don’t venture out on the streets and expose themselves.

India’s Case Fatality Rate (CFR) is around 2.6%, which is lower than the global average of 5.8%. This proves that a very small part of the vast Indian population has been tested. Considering, India’s poor health infrastructure—it is likely that more number of cases will pop up when people are tested.

According to Boston Consulting Group report, India will be in its peak infection phase by the end of June, 2020—and only then, gradually the effect of the virus will begin to taper. This year is gone in just thinking or managing the crisis.

Despite having one of the best medical facilities, US and Europe are hardly able to manage the pandemic, and there have been 3,50,000 confirmed positive cases. According to the Boston Consulting Group, US will only peak in the month of May.

India is absolutely an the beginning of the curve, and only when all containment measures taken by the government and the citizens fall in place, will India be able to flatten the curve.”

Episode 6: Busting Myths on Covid-19

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation, spoke with—Girish, who is a digital nomad and a proactive person. He is working towards busting the myths of Coronavirus in the digitally dark and unconnected areas. He owns a Wi-Fi enabled van and has covered around 50 telecom dark areas. He has used this opportunity to spread awareness about the Covid-19 pandemic through Nammahalli Community Radio he runs.

“I am at Channenhalli village which is 60 kilometres away from Tumkur district in Karnataka and am connected with Mr. Manzar through the internet. The scenario of the people in the remote villages post lockdown is that the villagers are doing fine and going along with their daily chores—but at the same time, they are concerned about the on-going Covid-19 pandemic. They think Coronavirus will consume all of them.

The villagers were happy interacting with us and are very curious to know more about the pandemic. I along with my team of research persons had visited the village and convinced them to not panic and helped the villagers understand that by maintaining hygiene, washing hand, social distancing and bathing at least once every day will prevent the virus from harming  them.

The villagers were also eager to know how the government is supporting them. Is the government supporting them by providing masks, sanitizers etc? So we further requested the villagers to not depend on the government and take care of themselves.

I also advised them to visit the nearby hospital or Asha workers if anybody from the village show symptoms of coronavirus.  I was happy to know that the Aganwadi workers also visit the villagers on a regular basis and this is very important for the people in the village.

The livelihood of the villagers was affected because of the lockdown, but many are engaging in agricultural activities and cow herding.

During the initial few days of my travel in some villages, I found out that women were performing certain traditional rituals to fight against Coronavirus—and interestingly even while performing rituals, they followed PM’s instructions and adhered to social distancing.

Also, travelling to villages in a Wi-Fi enabled and digitally equipped van helped me bring out the real stories from the ground.

The villagers are unconnected and live in digitally dark areas because of which the reception of the network is poor and it gets challenging for them to get connected with the rest of the world.

The lack of Wi-Fi facilities has kept these villagers aloof in the digital world. Setting up of basic Wi-Fi helps provide hotspot within a range of 300-500 meters.  I and my team also showed them how they can talk to us after they have connected their smartphones with the Wi-Fi.  The research person was sitting in the van clarifying all their doubts by answering their questions.

We went live on Facebook wherever we could find at least 2G network connectivity. I had built a small bandwidth bundler with the help of 3 dongles.

This is how I along with my team get into conversation with the villagers through Wifi , and bring their voices on one platform through ‘Nammahalli Community Radio’ I run and broadcast it on several other social media platforms—to spread awareness and address misinformation around Covid-19 pandemic.

The local WiFi system also creates access to educational materials online for the children who are now home bound—and this enables them to study and continue with their education at home until schools and colleges reopen.”

Episode 7: Emerging fear and financial crisis in Ghazipur

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation spoke with Amit Chandra Jha—who is a Project Officer of Smartpur project run by DEF in Ghazipur, U.P. Amit works towards helping people and communities in all possible ways and links them through digital connectivity. U.P. being the most affected and populated state, it is interesting to find how people from the ground have worked towards surmounting the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

“The immediate effect of lockdown on the villagers is that—it has become extremely difficult for them to step out of their respective homes, even for urgent requirements. The daily wagers are the most affected group. The farmers are not able to sell their produce.

The police don’t allow anybody to step out—and if anybody is found violating the orders, he/she is physically harassed and heavily penalised. The shopkeepers sometime evade government orders and open their shops even after the designated hours, because the biggest reality is—how will people eat without earning. Distribution of the essentials isn’t a solution. At the most the government will send food packets which will have rice, wheat, oil and spices—but one will have to step out to buy vegetables, milk etc.—and take their cattle to the fields to feed them.

People have to mandatorily wear masks while going out, but the less educated constantly break the rules out of carelessness or lack of awareness. Besides, the masks are sold for Rs 50 a piece in the market and are not affordable for the poor.

Post janta curfew, we thought things will get back to normal, but the lockdown has been extended until 3rd of May. This has created an unusual fear in the villager’s minds. There is a constant fear of what will happen next? Will Corona consume us all?

Nevertheless, people are confined to their respective homes, protecting themselves and others from the infection.

The government has also come forward with schemes to support the poor. Schemes such as Jan Dhan Yojna is providing the poor with Rs 500 per month for three consecutive months. The ones who hold rations cards are supported with an amount of Rs 1000 per month. Under Ujjawala Yojna, people will get free LPG for 3 months, which is likely to be extended by the government. The beneficiaries under Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna will get a sum of Rs 2000 per month for the next three months.

Even if a few people don’t have government ID cards or any other identity card or are not beneficiaries of any scheme, the U.P. government has decided to provide them with Rs 1000 per month—and this will be made available to them through the Sub-Divisional Magistrate and Chief Development Officer.

However, there are bureaucratic problems and we have requested Village Pradhan to help the poor people of the village in getting ration—irrespective of them being a ration card holder or not.”

As ‘Digital Entrepreneurs’ we have been asked to organise health camps in our centres, which have been converted into COVID-19 awareness camps. To educate people, we have created posters—communicating how to wash hands, sanitize and other dos and don’ts—and have them placed outside the camps.

Secondly, we have also created an online group for the students who visited centres— and we have added IT-Preneurs and teachers to the group—to continue teaching at least five students from each centre.

Episode 8: Food and Mask distribution in Ghazipur, U.P.

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of DEF spoke with Shatrunjai and Abhay Singh—digital foot soldiers from Ghazipur, U.P.  They have been distributing food packets in the village Nayakdih. These digital foot soldiers have been at the forefront of relief measures during COVID-19 Pandemic and have made use of their entrepreneurial skills to help society.

“Villagers are contributing rice, wheat, potato and oil—and we have prepared food packets to help others who are struggling. Since this is the harvest season, every family in the village can contribute something or the other. Some have even been extra generous by contributing 100 kgs of potato, rice—even bottles of cooking oil etc. So, we are depending purely on community support.

We have mapped the areas based on the number of residing families—and found that the people in Musahar and Harijan (The untouchables) areas are the ones who are genuinely struggling with food—so we distribute 250 food packets in these areas every day.

The villagers of Nayakdih and surrounding areas are very supportive. We have received calls from them asking us to collect dry ration from them. In the last 11 days, we have distributed 5500 food packets. We distribute food packets because we don’t want anyone to hoard essential supplies.

Other than the distribution of food packets—we have also distributed masks to the villagers. 4-5 centres, which are equipped with stitching units—we utilise them to make masks by the girls who work in these centres. 700 masks have been distributed so far, and we have received orders to make double and triple-layered masks from Jhansi and Bundelkhand.”

Episode 9: Diverted focus from other entailing issues

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation spoke with Utkarsh Rawat—who is the project head in Barabanki district of U.P. which is known as the weavers cluster. He is contributing actively as a Digital Foot Soldier to help people in the Covid-19 crisis.

“In Barabanki the weavers are in trouble due to the crisis. They have not been paid for the previous orders because there is no way of transporting the products. There haven’t been new orders also. This is causing intense financial crisis and they are really struggling.

The weavers are struggling with work. They are facing a challenging situation because provision stores are shut and they have to buy provisions from the black market. The prices of the commodities have shot up and the demand is more than the supply, but in the case of perishable items, such as vegetables, the farmers are forced to sell them for undervalued price because the mandirs are shut.

People are supporting each other with ration and other essential needs. The government is also assisting people with food through the police, but people avoid taking assistance from them, because the police raid their houses before delivering food packets and make a video to keep them from hoarding tendency.

To improve livelihood situation to some extent, we are sourcing cotton bedsheets from Lucknow, to locally produce cotton masks by soochnapreneurs . We distributed 700-800 masks produced in the first lot for free, but for the second lot we charged a nominal amount to cover some expenses. This has generated livelihood opportunity for a few weavers.

Episode 10: Educationally Backward, Socially Forward

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation spoke with Samar Khan– who is DEF’s project executive in Nuh, Haryana. He is ardently contributing as a Digital Foot Soldier to help people in the time of crisis.

“In Nuh, despite lockdown Samar Khan and his team have been on the go to serve people. Unfortunately, there is a lack of awareness and understanding when it comes to seriousness of COVID-19 pandemic. The women in the village treat it as rumour. We have been working towards debunking the misinformation around COVID-19 by visiting houses in the village and spreading awareness about the pandemic.

Apart from spreading awareness, we have distributed 1700 masks amongst the villagers. Nuh is also a home for 150 families of migrant labourers from Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar who subsist on daily wages. We helped them by providing them with the essentials.

Only the main spoke centre is operating. We have helped people get online passes, but it is totally at government’s discretion to allow their movement.

The daily wagers and auto-rickshaw drivers are the ones who are the most affected. According to them, the first phase of the lockdown was somehow manageable, but now the extension period is really becoming unbearable.

The situation seems to be getting out of hand. A man in the neighbouring village committed suicide because of financial difficulty. To control the situation, we have been distributing ration amongst the villagers and helping them in best way possible.”

Episode 11: Crisis of condition putting humans back to basics

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation spoke with Arun Maira. Arun Maira is a former Member of Planning Commission of India and also the former India Chairman of The Boston Consulting Group. He was also a part of Tata Administrative Services for 25 years and has written several books.

“The Planet is hitting backwards and it is a situation of a human crisis within the Planet’s existence. The situation is such that we all are isolated and quarantined in our respective homes. There is a disruption in human interference and it has allowed the planet to heal. For instance, Ganga looks cleaner than before, we hear birds chirping, there is no noise of vehicles on the roads as the human activities have come to a still.

The question is—what will we do once the lockdown is lifted? We have the option to return back as we were. Never-the-less, this makes us think deeper and helps us to realize that it is an aspirational crisis, which co-exists with humans and the planet crisis. We are compelled to observe, how migrant labourers and other poor people have no shelter or place to stay and isolate themselves—and how we as responsible people can contribute towards building a better world for the underprivileged.

At present, the people value the economy of desire over the economy of needs. The human beings are progressing in terms of material growth and has opted a consumerist model. Consumption gives us satisfaction, drives the material economy, which pulls in advertising and tempts people to want things they otherwise would do very well without. The satisfaction of human beings has become relatable. People feel proud in having different variants in their gadgets. Ironically, the ones who benefit from it are the producers and the sellers.

The society is compelled to aspire for materialistic things. The whole purpose of the economy must have been to serve mankind and society and not vice versa. A shift is in the equation is required. It is good that India is not entirely driven by materialistic consumption. Shekhar Kapoor, a renowned film director, and a very dear friend of mine, while making a documentary on the lives of Indian communities realized that the people lead a very basic life.

It is true that the Indian population (Urban) train themselves in vocational studies and look for jobs in the market. The MNCs earn profit from the products we buy and invest in. The whole cycle of demand-supply is huge and this lets corporates come up with ideas for a bigger catch for the consumer’s pocket.

The focus from Consumption related economic progress should be shifted to a Need based economy.

A certain amount of pressure is built on the government to provide for the basic needs of the people. The shift from the business to controlling people is very much visible. Authorizing someone is necessary, to ensure that the collective interest is not hampered due to personal interest.

Across the globe, people have come out on the streets to protest against COVID-19 crisis. Hence, individual freedom can be proved destructive for larger population. Technology can be used to provide relief for control purposes, but the question is—who is controlling that technology.

Local dependence and local living is lost now. The trend of consuming on a global scale persists. Going back to our basics will be an intelligent step forward. But, will this pave the path for strengthening local economy? For instance, a human body works in synchronization with several organs. It is possible that someone’s lungs are in better condition and someone else’s liver can function better; but if we break this unified chain, the individuality of a human being will be lost. Similarly, in an attempt to build an effective and most efficient economy, self-reliance and diversity will be lost. Hence, we should look for local sustainability and go back to the basics to create a diverse system.”

Episode 12: A fearful atmosphere in Rustampur.

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of DEF spoke with Imtiaz Ali- who is a Digital Foot Soldier of DEF. He is working on the ground in Rustampur, Bharatpur and helping the villagers in providing financial services in the time of crisis.

“Rustampur has a population of 500 people and 2 COVID-19 positive cases have been reported. People are panicked and there is an atmosphere of fear in the village. The villagers are under the assumption that the lockdown will continue for the whole year.

Bharatpur, comes under red zone and Rustampur is declared a hotspot. People are in closed doors, and the money from several government schemes credited in people’s bank account is being distributed by the banking correspondents at their respective doorsteps. Around Rs 50 lakh— including the amount credited from various government schemes have been distributed.

Majority of the families in the village are into agriculture and so far there hasn’t been any food crunch. There is sufficient stock of dry ration in every family, but the cost of perishable items such vegetables, milk have shot up. Due to this people are troubled as the basic essentials have become expensive.

The people in the village are misinformed and rumours about COVID-19 pandemic are adding fuel to the fire. The misinformation should be busted. We are spreading awareness and educating people in the best possible way and it is important that irrespective of the community people belong to, the disease should be taken seriously.”

Episode 13: VLE’s making Bihar proud

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of DEF spoke with Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLE); Pratima Kumari, Aarati Sharma, Manorama Uttam and Resham Kumari. They are the VLEs in West Champaran district of Bihar and are working towards the betterment of the community by distributing masks, sanitizers and providing digital solutions to the people.

Resham kumari

“There is a shortage of masks and sanitizers in West Champaran and people do not have money to afford one. Since, wearing masks is mandatory, I taught myself how to stitch masks with the help of YouTube videos and distributed 100 masks amongst people. Similarly, I also distributed homemade sanitizers and also taught them how to make it.

Many families who do not have TVs in their homes or are not subscribed to news channels are less informed about the current situation across the country. In order to help and keep them aware, I record news on my mobile phone and ply them on the temple’s loudspeaker”.

Pritam Kumari

“The economic condition of the village is bad. I have encouraged and helped the women of the village to find an alternative source of income amid this lockdown. The women are making masks and selling it for Rs 10/mask, which gives them a profit of Rs 5 per mask. Until now 1000 such masks have been sold”.

Aarti Sharma

“I was asked by the district manager of the village to get Arogya Setu downloaded on everyone’s phone and send them the list. Soap distribution to poor who could not afford them has been taken care of by the team. We have also distributed Rs 100 from our own pocket to as many villagers as possible to help them buy vegetables.”

Manorma Uttam

“In Chuhari village the poor are majorly affected. Several families are not able to afford the basics. I and my team have distributed rations and dry groceries, milks packets for the children in the time of crisis. The beneficiaries of various government schemes are totally dependent on the money they receive from the government. Unfortunately, the accounts have not been credited with the amount promised by the government and the people do not have money to spend even for the basic necessities”.

Episode 14: News from the home of the Migrants

Osama Manzar Founder and Director of DEF spoke with Prabhu Kumar – District coordinator at DEF. He has been helping the community members by distributing safety kits, masks and by spreading awareness and providing financial services to them.

People in Narkatiaganj, Rampur and Bettiah are following the norms of lockdown, but those who are in the villages, they haven’t taken it seriously. People have to mandatorily wear masks while going out, but the less educated are constantly breaking the rules out of carelessness or lack of awareness.  We as a team are trying to debunk misinformation and spread awareness about the vicious virus.

The monetary condition of the daily wagers and migrant labourers is not good. They are surviving on borrowed money from their neighbours. Nevertheless, we are making sure that the migrant labourers who have returned to the village are properly screened by the doctors and quarantined for 14 days, and the people also extended adequate support to them with essentials.

The situation in the village is not balanced. Where the beneficiaries of the government schemes such as Ujjala Yojna, Jan Dhan Yojna, PM Kisan Yojna and MNREGA, have gotten their accounts credited from various schemes, the people with no ration cards or bank accounts are facing problem.

On the brighter side, 500 masks have been distributed amongst people, the financial services have been provided to around 1500 people and until now food has been distributed to 300 people.

Episode 15: Pre and Post Covid Economics

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of DEF spoke with Amirullah Khan- an eminent economist. He teaches in ISB and Ashoka University. Amir puts forth his views and observations about the impact of coronavirus on healthcare and mentions that it is not as damaged as it was presumed to be. But the economy has certainly experienced staggering downward trend.

‘The impact of COVID-19 on health sector is not as bad as it was thought to be which is not to say that the virus hasn’t had a serious negative impact on India. The country is amidst a major economic crisis. amidst a major economic crisis Covid-19. It started in China, and spread across Spain, Italy, Iran, US and UK. Evidently, developing countries have shown lower infection rate as compared to developed countries. Cases of infection from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are known far less.

Speaking specifically of India, states such as Telangana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have shown higher infection rate. This could be because of the intensity of testing and tracing in places with more resources.

Indian economy was not in good shape even before the crisis. In the last quarter, India’s growth rate was lowest in 18 years—unemployment was in its peak and the exchange rate was at its worst. The GST returns were low and the government had zero money or fiscal space.

Hence, the belief that Indian economy suffered because of Covid-19 is a myth. Late announcement of the lockdown despite being aware of the situation resulted from lack of preparedness in the government. The African countries imposed lockdown in early March, wherein India waited until March 24th and lost two good weeks which could have otherwise been used to prepare people for the coming predicament. Due to the sudden announcement of the lockdown the schools had to rush the students back home, the hostels had to be vacated, and the migrant labourers were stranded on the streets.

The wrong use of the word ‘Curfew’ by the Prime minister, converted the humanitarian problem into a law and order problem. Instead of assigning health administration to control the situation, police was put in charge.

When people’s concerns and problems should have been addressed, the people were harassed. After the lockdown was declared, around 30000 trucks loaded with food and other perishable items were stuck on highways.

If measures such as contact less app-based doorstep delivery from restaurants and food marts, were marshalled efficiently by the government, it would’ve saved people from several long queues around grocery stores.

The government could have helped people with three essential basic facilities- Money, food and bandwidth. Amidst ongoing crisis, the only source of connectivity is via Internet.

Earlier economy needed human beings, which was driven by migration and it stayed for 40-50 years. In the current scenario, economy has consumed human beings by increasing consumption, consumerism, and usage.

Even though China is now open and all the shops and restaurants are functioning, people avoid travel and are not buying things other than basic essentials. Consumption has dropped by 40-50%. This has led factories to operate at half their potential, resulting in people getting fired.

People now have moved from large scale to subsistence consumption. If the consumption is weak, the produce is less—and if produce is less then unemployment shoots up and people will have less money to spend. Ideally, the government should have curbed crowding and allowed shops and businesses to function.

Last year, the rural income dropped by Rs 40 per person, and if this drop is reflected upon 800 million rural people, we can only imagine the impact Rs. 40 less spending capacity will have on the economy of the nation.

The ruling class always benefits from shutdowns as they enjoy the authority and power at their disposal. However, instead of using the current situation to exhibit power, it should be concerned about paying its officials and helping the poor.

To build a better India, government should come up with a robust plan to help 200 million people who have lost their jobs by providing Rs 5000 per month and help them sustain; provide economic stimulus for the economy; ensure that the lockdown is not treated as a shutdown; test 3000 people instead of 300 people per million; build more hospitals with ICU facilities; employ more doctors per 1000 people; and work towards economic welfare.

Just as 9/11 incident led the government to strengthen security of the nation—Covid-19 should result in more quality investment by the government in the healthcare sector to make way for a healthy and secured nation.

Episode 16 : Arogya Setu: A protection or Intrusion?

Osama Manzar, DEF Founder and Director spoke with Apar Gupta – Executive Director of Internet Freedom Foundation. He is a lawyer and has completed his graduation from Columbia School of Law and has been practicing for over a decade.

“This pandemic is not only a threat to human health but also to the constitutional framework. The representatives are ensuring that the democratic polity is enjoyed in its true nature for the welfare of the people so that we can achieve goals in terms of health, education, family etc. that comes along with an enabling environment.

According to the TRAI report there is huge under representation in rural India where there is only 1 connection per 4 people as compared to metro cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, where the ratio is 2:1. The access to digital technology is not percolating down to the masses.

How do rural people socially distance themselves when they do not have pakka houses, proper infrastructure, wealth, landed property? This projects a lot about different sections of Indian society, their state of being and the probability of rural people not having a smartphone, which otherwise could help them work remotely in a knowledge or a service-based platform.

Unfortunately, in a country like India, where everything is now digitized, all the banking services mostly operate online and through Aadhar, the rural people do not have access to these entitlements and the current lockdown just adds up to the situation.

Gladly, DEF is reaching the nooks and corners of the rural India, providing substantial service to the hemlocks of the country and serves as the last mile.

Establishment of public infrastructure is advisable in areas where the people are semi-literate and have devices for the first time so that the resource dependency is pulled together.

A panchayat has the potential to become a service provider and also an engaging community resource where people can get access to the internet. The access shouldn’t be in a restrictive fashion—it rather should enable people build strong bond with the internet.

The irony is that the approach of digital utilization is at the back seat. The bandwidth is poor, people don’t have access to the internet and yet the government is imposing people to download the Arogya Setu app for contact tracing and surveillance.

Arundhati Roy in Financial Times stated— “Pandemics are a wonderful opportunity to reset and correct whatever is going wrong.” The current situation requires correction of the fundamental rights from the government’s end along with citizen pushback.

Historian, Yuvan Nora Harari, links history to the present. His views on the pandemic is that the government is using app to roll out surveillance, which can change from over the skin to under the skin— i.e. people might end up having bearable devices installed on them for diagnosis.

There is a dire need for ‘Data Protection Law’. The smartphones collect the information through several apps, which directly goes to the MNCs pervasively and unaccountably. Arogya Setu app is one such example.

The app seems to be meant for extracting personal information, and not for public welfare. Therefore, it is not solving its main purpose of tracing, diagnosing, quarantining and curing as articulated by the WHO.

Such apps should be used with a basic level of trust, willingness and consideration—and also with a hope that it will solve purpose of saving people’s life. The current imposition of the app has brought a shift from cooperation and social fraternity to cohesion and force.

Arogya Setu is a mass surveillance app, totally made for data gather and if not installed puts the person at risk of getting criminally prosecuted. The citizens are a repository unto themselves and hold their individual anatomy, dignity and power, which they entrust to the government to achieve human welfare. It is weird in a democratic country like India that people may go behind bars if they do not install the app.

States like Telengana, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Delhi are using police as a visible marker for the enforcement of a lockdown and unfortunately the disease has been observed as a social taboo with a mix of untouchability.

Building social taboos around victims only creates a negative impact and will result in people not reporting them in future. This in turn will lead to the rise of infection.

It is sad that Arogya Setu app is not transparent about its salient features and the people who are using it are under the threat of exposing personal data. The underlying legal mechanism, product architecture, service conditions are not exposed. Whether the data residing on the server is open to the third party for audit and scrutiny is still not known.

Ministry of Health doesn’t know anything about the app and this is resulting in suspicion. More than the lack of communication it is a problem of lack of transparency at the government’s end. It will be healthy if the app is open for criticism and accepts suggestions. It completely lacks demonstration of good faith.

International expert, Shawn McDonalds stated that—”Contact tracing doesn’t have a clear evidence as it works on the standalone priority. Since the app is primarily used as a diagnostic tool, it is important that the information reaches out to the health experts.”

It is advisable that we go to the basics of policy making and get periodic reviews, and design a technology in a measured manner, which will protect the fundamental rights and advances them than constructing trade- off between public health and privacy.

Penalising public heavily for not having the app installed is a draconian measure and it certainly reeks of an authoritarian government. A recent order by the Noida Police to book public under section 188 of IPC for not having COVID- tracker app on their smartphones will be considered as disobedience is shocking.

Such act compels everyone to think if the government is making use of the pandemic to deploy power/ authority on the citizens or is actually taking this as an opportunity to access and reset.

IFF is working on the fundamental rights of the internet services for all and ensures that people get quality access to the internet. We had predicted a downfall in the network speed, debunk fake news , promote civic literacy etc. along with a working paper on Arogya Setu, contact tracing, impacts on privacy, which includes 14 recommendations.

Also a signed letter is sent to the Home Ministry stating that this app shouldn’t be made mandatory for people of labour class, especially people who don’t own a smartphone. Hence, we are working on fundamental rights with a sense of social justice.

Episode 17: Tribal girls of Madhya Pradesh extend support to the local


Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of  DEF spoke with Geeta, Ganga, Laxmi and Savitri- GOAL ( Going Online as leaders ) Mentees who have been spreading COVID-19 awareness and helping the people avail safety kits in Betul Village in Madhya Pradesh.

“Betul, a remote village in Madhya Pradesh has several daily wagers as residents who don’t have money to buy even the basics. They are totally dependent on their daily wages and lockdown has made life extremely difficult.

As a team we came up with an initiative to extend our support to the village people by providing them with safety kits and essentials in the time of crisis.Non-ration card holders were finding it difficult to get ration, so we informed the local administration. Local police helped in getting ration delivered to the village for free.

We spread awareness about the virus by painting the walls of people’s homes. We actively talk about social distancing and inform the villagers about dos and don’ts. We have also distributed masks in the village.

We have learnt a lot under the mentorship of Samriddhi Bharadwaj and have done our best to live up to her expectations through our willingness to extend genuine support to the community in the time of crisis.

GOAL has truly brought about positive changes in our personality. We have enhanced our digital and life skills. Now we are aware of job opportunities. We believe we can become successful entrepreneurs and help fellow villagers.

Episode 18 and 19:

COVID-19 Lockdown: The exhausted and upset migrants

Sandeep and Lal Bahadur, migrant labourers from Bettiah, Bihar, shared— “We couldn’t find a bus to Bihar from Kashmiri Gate.  We didn’t even know that we won’t get a bus and we are now walking back to Gurgaon.”

This has been the state of migrant labourers across the country post lockdown. Several young boys such as Sandeep and Lal Bahadur who are hardly in the age group of 21-22 years, employed as quarry workers in a construction site and live in a rented room close to their work place. They went to the bus stand hoping to get back to their villages, but had to return as all forms of transportation had been suspended during the lockdown. This is just one of many cases of suffering when first phase of lockdown was announced at 4 hours’ notice.

It is really upsetting to learn that right from the start, the fight against COVID-19 has completely overlooked the poor section of the society. The fact that slums are practically not in the position to cope with the novel idea of social distancing was not taken into consideration.

Jagdish, Kalla Ram and Kamlesh also have similar stories, who are taking turns to peddle a rickshaw to reach their homes in Dilli Darwaza in Alwar, which is around 200 km from Delhi. On the onset of their journey, they were stopped by the police at Kapashera border. There were 1500 other migrants who were stuck at the check post trying to make their journey back to their villages.

They spent the night outside a showroom waiting to be allowed to continue their journey by the police personnel. The owner of the showroom was a gentle soul and invited them inside and offered them with food and water. Fortunately, the next day the team of police personnel manning the check post was replaced by a new team that was more sympathetic to the plight of the migrants who gave them the permission to pass through the check post.

The crisis has rendered the migrant workers jobless and they are resorting to just about any possible means to reach their native places. Unemployment has left them with no money to buy food and water, yet the government hasn’t made any provisions for them. The bus terminals within cities and state boundaries have become places of violent encounters between the migrants and the police, which is invariably resulting in the desperate migrants being beaten up by the police as they are being seen as violators of the lockdown rules.

It reflects on India’s brutally uneven development pattern, which is a sad state that we did not take into consideration the impact of lockdown on the migrant labourers and left them to suffer because of hunger, unemployment and violent treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Episode 20 and 21:

The unaided victims of the lockdown

The ordeal migrant labourers are going through is possibly one of the greatest human tragedies witnessed in recent decades. The government’s efforts at improving the plight of these poor souls have been bereft of empathy. It is incumbent upon the powers that be to direct attention at once to these workers who have been forced to undertake arduous journeys on foot. In many instances, they have had to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes.

The pandemic-induced national lockdown has rendered inter-state travel on trains and buses almost impossible; hence, the attempt on the part of the workers to walk home. News reports are filled with stories of women dying due to dehydration, children walking barefoot, and other heart-wrenching sagas. Yet, the government has not taken any significant steps to diminish their woes.

In one such painful story, migrant labourers from West Bengal, who worked at a construction site in Gurgaon lost their patience. They had to stay at the construction site for two months because of the lockdown, and hoped that it would be lifted or at least relaxed. They consumed all their resources, and the landlord expressed his inability to feed them further. He finally had to ask them to vacate.

Stranded on the streets, in a group of 25, these labourers decided to cross borders to get back to their homes with very little money, insufficient even to buy bus tickets. The company they were working for stopped supporting them. It didn’t even pay them for the work they did before, leaving them without essentials.

Because of severe restrictions on movement, these labourers were constantly searching for a different route to reach Badarpur border in order to leave for home. At this juncture, DEF provided them with some financial assistance and implored them to use it to stay in the city until travel restrictions are eased.

In another such painful story, Bharat Yadav – father of two kids along with few of his friends decided to cycle 1100 kms from Gurgaon to Bihar. With only a few biscuits and water bottles their will to go back to their native place was commendable. They were determined to reach their respective destination in a week’s time. The lack of money to buy bus or train tickets made them travel on cycle. They had Google maps installed in the phone which guided and helped them to follow the correct route. Also, they had also installed an app that charges phone using solar energy as finding charging points along the way might have gotten difficult. They made it to their respective hometown in a week’s time.

In this treacherous time it is ardently to be hoped that the government shuffles off its careless attitude towards the migrant labourers and does something to end this disgraceful chapter of our national history.

Episode 22 and 23:

Vijay Nath and Sanjay, migrant workers who came in search of work to Badli, Haryana, shared- “We didn’t have any money on us when we left and no money for food at home as well.”

This has been the case with many such migrant workers all over the country during this lockdown. Many like Vijay and Sanjay who come in the 20-21 age group were employed in the village to harvest the crops at their employers’ land. Their landlord being a drunkard accused them of being cheats and called 10-15 villagers, starting a big fight. They not only beat them up, but also, destroyed the slum where they were staying and took away all their belongings.

It is really tragic to hear that during the time when the poor needed money the most, people straight up cheated them and put the blame on the innocent. After putting in so much effort by harvesting 50,000 rupees worth crops, they ended up with nothing since the employer said that the money from the crops sold was for himself.

With no money in their hand, all they could do was ask one of the truck drivers for their help. Not only did the driver give them a ride till a highway but fed them and gave them a little money to survive till they reached home safely.

Similarly, Ram, a migrant worker, had come from the district of Purnea, Bihar to Punjab where he worked in the cellar. He along with a few people were victims to being cheated.

For the past 2 months people haven’t been paid even though there was work happening in phases during the lockdown. With hardly any money, he borrowed and pooled in his savings for the taxi fare back home at the expense of going hungry. 13 people like him had booked taxis to take them back home empty-handed.

When he was asked if given a paying job, would he have stayed back and worked, he simply said that he rather went back home and worked in the fields while staying with his family.

Episode 24 and 25:

Kapil is a 31-year-old truck driver from a village near Palwal Haryana, who selflessly helped the migrant workers who he came across on his way back from a delivery. He stated that: “I can earn money if I am alive but if I can help these poor migrant workers reach their home who are from different parts of the country, I don’t want to disappoint them.”

During the nationwide lockdown, many migrant workers were stranded in different parts of the country with no means of transportation or communication. Such was the case where a couple of migrant workers were stranded near the Jaipur Highway. Kapil offered to help them and took them all the way to Palwal which was the last stop.

With money constraints at home he didn’t ask the migrant workers to pay him for the travel. He was ready to help them and says that it was never about the money.

A similar story is that of Narendra’s family of 12 who were travelling from Gurugram to Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh. With work being stalled due to the lockdown and no pay, he and his family were forced to leave Gurugram.

Having exhausted all the savings, the problems kept increasing so they decided to go back home so that they could save up on the rent money and afford to feed their children. Being a rickshaw driver, he couldn’t earn money during the lockdown but landlord was kind enough to not ask them for rent and also fed them for a few days. Some of the neighbors helped them too, but eventually they left because they didn’t want to burden people who were helping them.

“We heard that the government is giving ration but we didn’t get any. Our neighbors and landlords were the ones who gave us the ration for free. Different people kept giving us some things. But we didn’t receive anything from the government,” said Narendra.