The war against Covid-19 was quickly followed by CSOs on providing sustenance to disadvantaged communities in the unorganised sector such as daily wage earners, small vendors, immigrant workers, fishing communities, artisans, weavers, and cultivators.
By Sanjoo Thangjam
Unlike the first wave which largely seemed to give Manipur the miss, the second wave of Covid-19 with its rapid spread and lethality took the local population and administration alike by surprise. The State Government machinery too was put to a test while dealing with the crisis of a scale that had never been experienced before. Relief efforts were badly compounded by the logistics of procurement of medical supplies and equipment from outside Manipur and transporting these to some of the remotest parts of the state.
Fortunately, at this time of crisis, certain Civil Society Organisations stepped up to partner with and support the Government. Amongst these, an NGO worthy of mention for its COVID relief work across Manipur is Sunbird Trust, a state based NGO that stood out for its outreach work. In normal times, Sunbird Trust with its motto of “Peace through Education” is involved in providing access to education through child sponsorship and building schools and hostels across the North East and particularly in Manipur. However, with all the schools in the state being shut, Team Sunbird, seamlessly switched from their core work of education to relief work.
Keeping track of the steady rising of the COVID affected graph in the state, the Sunbird team reacted proactively surveying the requirement for medical supplies and equipment through interacting with the District Commissioners and liaising with district health officials. The survey was critical to identifying actual needs at various locations. The next step was coordinating with multiple donors from all parts of the country and apprising them of the critical situation in Manipur. Dianarose Haobijam Devi, part of the Sunbird relief team says that she was pleasantly surprised at the immediate response received from these donors. Among the first to contribute was Anaha Trust, founded by Mr Balagopal Chandrasekhar, a Kerala based entrepreneur and philanthropist who had served as an IAS officer in Manipur in the mid 1970s.
This Trust contributed several tons of medical supplies and equipment which included a critically needed Arterial Blood Gas Analyzer for the ICU at Tamenglong District Hospital. In this context, the District Commissioner of Tamenglong Armstrong Pame was grateful to the Sunbird team for extending prompt help to district administration at a critical time. He mentioned that the machine donated by the Trust was of great help to the medical fraternity and patients at the hospital alike. Similarly, Bangalore based Prestige Foundation, contributed a Tempo Trax ambulance for Oinam Hill Village as well as special hospital beds for the PHC at Singngat.
The war on the medical front was quickly followed by the one for providing sustenance to disadvantaged communities in the unorganised sector such as daily wage earners, small vendors, immigrant workers, fishing communities, artisans, weavers, and cultivators. The unavoidable lockdown severely dented their meagre earnings and hand-to-mouth existence. Restrictions on movement denied market access to the cultivators and hampered their ability to sell their seasonal produce. At this time, Sunbird team members based across the state, both in the plains and in remote villages gathered inputs from around their locations and contacted donors across the country for providing ration kits. Pertinently, Sunbird Trust contextualized the ration kits to suit local consumption. For instance, donors were advised that items like atta supplied with ration kits across the country were usually not on the menu in Manipur. Instead, the kits were customized with the local “sticky” rice and even packets of ngari (fermented fish). Thoughtfully, a variety of items of daily consumption like rice, onions, potatoes, dal, sugar, salt, turmeric, tea, masks, hand sanitizers, detergent, soap and even sanitary napkins were variously included in the kits.
Sunbird Trust’s founder, retired Colonel Christopher Rego whose last posting of nearly 4 years was in Imphal mentioned that at Sunbird, no team members returned to their parent states to “work from home”. Instead, “home” was Manipur itself. With “all hands on deck”, team members with their local partners fanned out across plains and hills distributing rations sometimes with the kind logistical support of the Assam Rifles and Army personnel.
Sunbird Trust’s main outreach work was carried out in the districts of Senapati, Imphal East and West, Bishnupur, Churachandpur, Noney, Kamjong, Tamenglong and Ukhrul. At Churachandpur, in the presence of the Hon. Chief Minister, N Biren Singh, ration kits were distributed amongst auto drivers. In Imphal (East), the DC Ms Khumanthem Diana Devi supervised ration distribution in her district. In Senapati District, a local social worker Benjamin Tao, founder of The Good Samaritan Foundation, alerted Sunbird Trust about the plight of a group of over 400 migrant road construction labourers and their families. Having been laid off from work for months and without any means of livelihood, these labourers were barely surviving on a meal per day. Tao states that the labourers were astonished to find complete strangers approaching them with food and some actually had tears of joy and relief.
Sunbird Trust Community Development Manager, Pratip Ganguly said that if the small Sunbird team had been able to make a noteworthy contribution in the state, it was majorly due to the “Team of Teams” concept adopted by the organisation. By this, all the stakeholders including generous institutional donors, local NGO partners, officials from the District Administration, Village Authorities cooperated closely in coordinating the relief work. Timely curfew passes from the local District Commissioners facilitated the uninhibited transportation of relief material and movement of team members.
Besides Anaha Trust, major contributors included Prestige Foundation, The Life Foundation, Crypto Relief India, Srijan Foundation and Manas Foundation. Sunbird’s local partners for relief distribution, Greenhill Society, Zangna Society for Cultural and Rural Development in Senapati District and North East Women’s Network in Imphal, Matai Project in Bishnupur District helped in identifying beneficiaries, mobilizing them, and coordinating the distribution of rations. In Churachandpur, Sunbird Trust partnered with the Highland Group in myriad relief activities including transportation of patients from remote areas, supplying hot meals to front-line responders, providing COVID-related information by telecommunications, and acting as referral units for people requiring assistance.
Sunbird Trust’s COO Aliasgar Janjali, who left the corporate world to work in the development sector mentions that the Sunbird team of 26 young professionals, most of who are posted at Sunbird partner schools across Manipur and other NE states, hail from all parts of the country. Counting among themselves Teach for India and Gandhi Fellows, MSW, MBA and Engineers besides a host of other professionals, they bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the Sunbird endeavour. During the lockdown, all were involved directly or indirectly in the administration, logistics and execution of the Sunbird COVID relief outreach work in Manipur.
Overall, the medical supplies sourced by Sunbird Trust have benefitted tens of thousands of people in Manipur while over 30,00 persons impacted by the COVID related lockdown benefitted from the ration kits. Col L Manongba (Retd), General Secretary of Armed Forces Ex Servicemen Association, Manipur and Officer in Charge Ex Servicemen Healthcare Polyclinic at Imphal, who is closely acquainted with the work of Sunbird Trust, states that the true test of the worth of an organisation and its value to society is not when the going is smooth, but particularly by its performance in times of crisis…and, he says, Sunbird Trust has passed that test with flying colours!
(The writer is a columnist based in Imphal)