Absence of State-Civil Society Cooperation Make Hunger an Unprecedented Challenge in Bihar

The government and the civil society must work in collaborative effort to fight hunger and poverty amid the pandemic, but why have things not worked for Bihar?

[ FILE IMAGE ] Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and state Health Minister Mangal Pandey. Photo Credit :| EPS under CC

Covid-19 has taken an unprecedented toll on the world and has attacked people from all walks of life without any discrimination.  A situation like this calls for joint efforts to attend to the many desperate people who are in need of help.There has been a positive response of humanity being alive and of responding to human need. 

The biggest blow to the pandemic is the unpreparedness of the government to respond to this situation in a systematic/planned manner.  There have been many initiatives of civil society, of networks, of individuals wanting to do something.  But we have failed as a state to bring relief to the suffering humanity.The Bihar State Disaster Management along with the administration refused any support and help from the civil society.

After the 22nd March when we became aware that this lockdown was going to last for sometime, the civil society organisations woke up to the struggles of their surroundings.  We thought that we would be able to work together to bring about a change; make a difference and transform to some extent, the scenario of misery and utter chaos.  The rude shock hit us when we were told by the administration and the law enforcing agencies that they can manage everything on their own and don’t require us in any way.  It is true that a department is in place but then it is also true that the gravity of the spread of the virus cannot be fought alone by one department, it will take all types of people, all types of expertise and above all the willingness of people who are ready to risk their lives for the cause of others.

When it comes to bringing relief, the state has the resources and the machinery to reach out to people.  There is a need for a well planned project, a well monitored implementation and there is also an urgent need for reporting and filling in the gaps.  

Civil society has the expertise to handle situations and it’s only a combined effort that could save people from the disaster they are grappling with.  What happened in Patna was a sheer maintenance of law and order.  There has hardly been any effort on orientation of the safety measures and the effort to ensure that those who violate these laws pay the price has not been taken care of.

What the present government has failed to understand is that administrative and law and order skills is one thing and organising people in times of calamity is quite another.When you impose an order without offering alternatives or substitutes of food, how can anyone expect that people will survive while following the protocol?  

The middle class people were quick to run to the grocery shops and collect food items and stack them at home.  Was there a thought given to what will happen to the daily wage earners which make up more than 50% of Patna’s population?From where would they procure food?     

As I write this, the number of phone calls I received from the break of dawn till late at night still echo in my ears “Hum log bhuke hain.Kya kare?( We have been hungry, what should we do?). Many sleepless nights and my inability to take in even a morsel of food choked me as I realised that people all around were hungry. What about those who had no access to any help and just languished in their hunger, their stomachs aching with pain for a morsel of food.  These scenes continue to remain vivid in my mind and heart.  We had to move into action and so as a small group of dedicated people we asked for help and we got quite a good response.  

We swung into action and decided to distribute rations among the communities with whom we have been engaged with.  But to our utter dismay we were not given permission to distribute food grains without police protection.  

We chose to have the police accompany us to the slums where we were able to distribute rations to the most needy ones.  It was quite a herculean task as, taking the ration to the doorstep of each community member was an arduous task, but it was important to abide by the norms of social distancing.  We were able to distribute ration to some 1700 families and encourage them to be safe and to maintain social distancing.

Why has the state government been so skeptical in not accepting the help of civil society?In spite of the directions of the Supreme Court and the Niti Aayog, which have given specific directions to engage with civil society and NGO’s the Bihar government has ignored their contribution and help.

As a result it was pathetic to see women moving around with a bag in their hands to find a place where food was being distributed.  There has been a failure of the government to systematically distribute food and ration to the people. Unfortunately, things have happened in a haphazard manner and they failed in their responsibility to provide food to the hungry.

There has been no dearth of announcements – food grains with dal will be distributed; money will be deposited in your account and a number of other statements.  Just by announcing these things, they don’t get materialised automatically.  Systems have to be put in place and there has to be clear directions to the fair price shops or to any other sector to ensure smooth functioning of directions.  But this has not been the case, everyone works on their own whims and fancies and operate as they want.There is no higher authority that takes immediate action as a sign to the others.

So, what happens to the public funding that the government has to show; a welfare state is expected to help those in need and to reach out to the best of their ability but often the onus falls on the implementer and no action is taken if they fail to act.  

In this situation the communities on the periphery, the daily wage earners, those who live on rent, those who belong to the lower middle class, what happens to them?  Is it a way to siphon out money and to keep the people hoping for relief?  Is this another way of being dubious and taking people for a ride.  After all the government collects money from the taxes we pay and then we have a right to know how our money is spent?  This is democracy and we cannot afford to overlook these procedures.This is perhaps one of the darkest times in history; when governments have failed their people; when demands have fallen on deaf ears. 

Dorothy Fernandes is the Founder of Aashray Abhiyan that works for the right to shelter among the disadvantaged people. She is based in Patna.