Empowering Relief: More Than ‘Doing The Poor A Favour


“Yes, we need ration for my family today; thank you for your generosity,” said a domestic worker in south Delhi when our relief distribution team reached her basti (colony) last week. Time and again, thousands of domestic workers in Delhi/NCR welcomed bags that contained food grain and essential supplies for a few weeks. The second wave of the virus had left them suddenly unemployed, and totally vulnerable.

The relief efforts being mounted by civil society and citizens’ associations around the country have been essential for the daily survival of thousands of families during the past three months. These organisations have been using social media platforms to share information about relief – both as appeals for donations and as communication of important work done by them.

Urgent, immediate, and reliable non-governmental relief efforts have been supporting the survival of millions of households during the pandemic. Though such relief efforts are temporary, they are immediate, flexible, and responsive. Civil society is able to thus contribute to the survival of such vulnerable households through timely food relief. What is even more heartening is that thousands of youth around the country have come forward to volunteer in identifying households in need, facilitating communications with them, mobilising donations and supporting civil society organisations in distributing relief, and monitoring that recipients are indeed receiving appropriate relief materials, as planned.

It is important, therefore, to situate such short-term, immediate food relief actions of civil society in the medium term perspective of empowering households and communities to become self-reliant. “Yes, please do send some dry ration and food for my two young kids, we need them urgently,” answered Kamla (a domestic worker in Gurugram) to a volunteer enquiring over phone about her needs last week. “I will get back to work in 2-3 households or set up a small tea shop, as soon as the lockdown is lifted,” she continued. She was seeking short term support only, not permanent dependence.

When vulnerable, low-income, zero-asset households run out of immediate income, they do need food relief urgently to survive. At that moment, they are critically dependent on relief provided by others to be able to eat. Therefore, they are further vulnerable and powerless vis-à-vis providers of relief. They will do what you ask them to, in order to get relief to feed their children. So, unwittingly, the distribution of relief can become patronising charity, as if the giver of relief is doing these vulnerable households a ‘favour’.