Aruna Chandrasekhar’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since Tuesday evening. Her desperate call for relief for people at Ejipura had actually reached a significant number of people. This, thanks to involved citizens reaching out through their personal and social networks.
Aruna, in her twenties, is a freelance photographer and writer has long been involved in social activism, particularly in environmental and mining-related issues. On the morning of January 18th, her friend and activist Kaveri Indira Rajaraman, a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Science, called her. Kaveri has been fighting for the rights of those residing in Ejipura EWS (Economically Weaker Section) quarters for quite some time. Ejjipura is adjacent to Koramangala in south Bengaluru.
Aruna started spreading the word, especially after Kaveri and several other activists and protesters were detained by police the next day. Shortly thereafter, she herself reached the site to help with relief efforts near the razed site where the EWS Quarters once stood, and has been there since, co-ordinating relief and communication*. The people who have not been able to find any alternative settlement are now spending their days and nights in the open.
BBMP’s demolition drive of last week, which has seen thousands from Ejipura’s EWS slum quarters near Koramangala rendered homeless overnight, has sparked off a humanitarian crisis of immense proportion. As the debate continues over the legitimacy of such a drive and the brutality of the state, despair and utter dejection is the dominant mood not just among those affected but among many who wonder aloud if this is all that the economically weak can expect from the state by way of their fundamental right to shelter.
However, if there is any glimmer of hope in all this, it comes from the completely spontaneous and voluntary outburst of support and relief efforts undertaken not just by social activists but also organizations, student bodies and ordinary individuals moved by the plight of hundreds of women and children without access to food, drinking water, sanitation facilities and medical attention.
People from all walks of life have poured in at the site to help in whatever way they can and volunteers have been working tirelessly since Saturday to ensure that basic necessities reach the displaced. Simply ensuring that all these families can have two or three meals a day has been a huge exercise in logistics and coordination and it is only because citizens have joined hands with the volunteers on site that this has been possible so far.
"We have been trying to arrange for food packets, water and blankets and have received a huge response. Organizations like Akshaya Patra had also pitched in for the first few days but such is the dimension of the crisis, that no matter how much we get, it is not enough," says Aruna.
Deeply affected by the abysmal conditions in which the evicted have been living, and especially by the death of an old woman on Tuesday, possibly from cold and prolonged lack of nutrition, Aruna sounded desperate when we first spoke to her on Wednesday morning. "People don’t have drinking water here, women don’t have access to toilets, students can’t go to school or college, many fear losing their livelihoods as they haven’t been able to go to work; it’s a crisis of unimaginable proportion. We desperately need blankets to battle the night chill. Otherwise there may be more casualties…"
Clearly, the call for help did not go unheeded as by Wednesday night, the volunteers had received close to 400 blankets from various quarters – residents of Defence Colony, groups of IT professionals as well as individuals. A few doctors were also on the site, attending to many who need medical attention. Aruna also mentions a group of 50-60 students from St Joseph’s who have been visiting over the past couple of days, helping with distribution and other needs on the ground.
The extent of student participation in volunteering efforts has also been a pleasant surprise for Arati Chokshi, an activist with the Karnataka People’s Union for Civil Liberties who cannot hold back her emotion as she talks of the plight of the people and the brutal indifference of the state. But in the gloom and despondency of the situation, what gives her hope is the significant number of students that she has met at the site, who have been milling around, volunteering to help in whatever way they can.
One such student from the Azim Premji University, who had initially come with her friends only to gauge the realities of the issue, said that the condition of the people and the sheer amount of work and help needed on the ground has stirred her so much that she cannot stop herself from coming back repeatedly.
Arati also gushes at the relentless efforts of activists like Venkat and Arif, who have devoted every moment of the last few days, trying to help the residents. "It is not just their work in arranging for funds for rentals or relief material, their deep personal involvement and connect with the affected is what gives me hope for humanity," says Arati.
However, despite the show of support and active volunteering from people across the city, the crisis is far from resolution. "We still need help with food and medicines, for these are not one-time needs. The challenge of continuing to provide meals for the 700 odd people who still haven’t found any place to go to is a huge one," she points out.
Another volunteer, Mayank Rungta, a tech professional, who has been striving untiringly to mobilise people support and voluntary efforts echoes the need for continued monetary contributions for food and blankets as well as for physical presence, especially during lunch and dinner hours.
Arati is more concerned about the larger issue at stake – arrangement of alternative accommodation for the displaced. With the state unwilling to bend in the least, and many of the families entirely lacking in resources to arrange for rentals, funds mobilization is a huge challenge.
While a group of people, whose identity is yet to be confirmed, have pooled in money and are donating it through the mosque to people who have found rental accommodation, there has been some hesitation on the part of many to accept this. Arati is working hard to see what can be done to garner more funds. "I desperately appeal to Bangaloreans to donate for this," she says as she fears that persistence of the situation could take a grave humanitarian toll in the long run. As a High Court hearing on the petition filed by a section of the occupants comes up next week, a lot of advocacy and legal research is also underway, says Arati.
While the obligations of the state and the legal rights of those displaced from these quarters will continue to be debated and discussed, the pressing need for humanitarian and monetary assistance cannot be overlooked at any cost. Ejipura needs more Samaritans, and now.
Those interested to contribute or help in relief efforts may contact: Kaveri Rajaraman:77602 35234 / Aruna Chandrasekhar:9886198482 / Mayank Rungta:98481 55447⊕