Easing woes: Unsung warriors who helped the poor during Covid-19 lockdown

Topics NGOs | migrant workers | Lockdown

Three-fourths of the non-profit organisations continue to be actively engaged in ongoing relief work, using their embeddedness in communities as a particular strength.
They are the unsung warriors, the silent workers, whose only mission is to restore dignity and self respect to India’s invisible people. They’re derisively called jholawallahs, but non-profit organisations (NPOs) have played a bigger role in mitigating the effects of the Covid-19 crisis than most people know or understand. The Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, Ashoka University, is India’s first academic centre focused on enabling strategic and robust philanthropy for greater social impact. It has come out with a rigorously researched report on the NPOs based on interviews with 50 non-profit leaders on the operational and financial implications of Covid-19. The interviews were conducted through April and May this year to assess NPOs’ engagement in relief work, operational and financial status, and coping strategies during the pandemic.

The report has some revealing results.  Three-fourths of the NPOs continue to be actively engaged in ongoing relief work, using their embeddedness in communities as a particular strength. This work ranges from last-mile delivery of relief material such as dry ration and sanitation kits, community awareness and sensitisation, setting up health camps and isolation facilities, rescuing stranded labour, provision of direct cash transfers, to offering rehabilitation of the distressed communities, says Ingrid Srinath  who heads the Centre.

Funds are a problem. Around 30 per cent of the non profits can only sustain their fixed costs for six months or so. Others can go on for a year or longer. But what is interesting is that the lockdown forced NPOs into the realisation that their limited digital skills and capacities pose a major operational challenge and in a post Covid-19 world, a few NPOs have started investing in digital skills.

The report says the NPOs dependent on corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding in particular are facing challenges. Corporate funders are redirecting a substantial part of current CSR funding to immediate relief work, including the PM CARES Fund. Further, likely reduced financial profits will result in much smaller CSR budgets in the near future. NPOs dependent on Indian philanthropists cited long-term commitment and passionate engagement with grassroots issues as the strongest virtue of Indian philanthropists, but noted that bureaucratic structures and slow approval processes are bottlenecks. NPOs with primary dependence on international funders reported receiving great support including proactive engagement with NPOs and offering a flexible approach to funding. However, nonprofit organisations worry that funding from international funders may reduce in future in light of the global impact of the pandemic.

A migrant child feeds water to a toddler while waiting with their family to board a train at Central Railway station, during the ongoing nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, in Chennai
NPOs also worry that the heightened focus on funding immediate relief work and healthcare interventions may diminish the urgency of addressing the socioeconomic crisis which is likely to have long-term social implications.

Among the interventions by NPOs was the issue of migrants. The report says millions of migrant workers and day labourers lost their livelihoods due to the lockdown and were left with little or no cash in hand. Nonprofit organisations working with ultra-poor populations residing in urban slums transferred cash to the bank accounts of their beneficiaries for immediate relief. Several have further extended support in rescuing stranded migrant labourers from different corners of the country amidst the lockdown. In doing so, some have repurposed themselves to contribute. For instance, one organisation working on environment and sustainability helped rescue stranded fishermen from ports in southwest India.

Similarly, to address the needs of returning migrants, NPOs working in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan set up community kitchens for returning migrant labourers. Other NPOs have started the distribution of rehabilitation kits. These rehabilitation kits include seeds which can be used by migrant labour for sustenance farming. In rural Maharashtra and Rajasthan, for instance, NPOs are already working to create opportunities for livelihoods in the migrant workers’ villages to support this segment of population in their path to economic recovery.

The report warns of an inevitable and looming funds crunch as funders as well as NPOs struggle to meet the demands of the current crisis but are conscious that their ongoing programmes could suffer. For instance, a delayed impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be on the education of girls as families strapped for cash, marry girls off earlier to reduce the number of mouths that need feeding. Srinath says all these aspects merit attention.

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