Karwaan Banta Gaya – The Initiative That Grew by Itself

With the immediate enforcement of the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, we had been pondering how we could help so many stranded people. Images of migrant workers trekking hundreds of kilometres, abandoning the cities they no longer felt like home any more, carrying with them whatever they had in life, carrying even little babies in their arms – babies that might not even survive the ordeal – drove us crazy. There had to be a solution. Then we saw even more pathetic scenes of thousands of people thronging central kitchens set up by the governments or NGOs, waiting hours for meals. The exodus and the crowded feeding centres both defeated the very purpose of the lockdown. It was a matter of great concern what the outcome of this could be – the virus which had been predominantly an urban phenomenon till then could soon ravage the hinterlands of India. That was when we started thinking backwards, like reverse engineering, and finding out what the root cause of all these could be.

After some introspection and brainstorming, a few interesting things emerged. The exodus was not caused because a huge number of people had been suddenly rendered homeless. It was not caused because of any fear – like what happens in the case of communal riots or pogroms. It was also not caused due to any natural calamity which suddenly rendered a place totally unliveable. It was caused only because, suddenly, with no cash in hand, millions of daily wage earners staying away from home were feeling alienated, lonesome, and helpless too, with no one to share their pains of hunger, and the uncertainties about the immediate future. Under such circumstance, it’s but natural to yearn for their kin back home who could at least cry with them, die with them, if need be.

So now there were two problems – one of hunger, and the other of the chance of rapid spreading of the virus through the mass movements. It’s very obvious that the first was the root cause of the exodus the second its immediate fatal outcome. The foremost thing that came to our mind then was the immediate need for feeding the hungry people and hence the central kitchens and arrangements for massive food distribution appeared logical. Even, for the sake of argument, if we assumed that the million people would be picked up from their homes during the lockdown, taken to the central kitchens, fed, and then again dropped back home, all the time maintaining social distancing, and all the desirable standards of hygiene, still, it was not just feasible to prepare so much food on a daily basis.

But in all these, we had been missing a very simple fact that these stranded millions actually didn’t need cooked food. Most of them already had cooking arrangements wherever they had been staying and could very well do good if only the local neighbourhood grocers they had been going to all these days gave them their daily provisions on debt. We can’t blame the local grocers, who are more often than not, people of meagre means, as their concerns for unrecoverable bad debts, given the situation, are indeed true. The ideal solution would have been the government transferring some money to the bank accounts of the affected people so that they could go about buying the necessary items and sustaining their lives. But that won’t happen overnight and would involve a lot of hiccups too, even if we assumed that everyone had a bank account, which is not the case anyway. So, what could be done next? That was when it just flashed into our minds that we could apply the age-old tried and tested method of Divide and Conquer, something that we had been anyway got used to over the past few centuries of British and then Indian rules.

We thought of conquering the macro problem of million people at the city level by dividing it into the hyper micro problems of only a few hundred in each neighbourhood. Looking around in our own neighbourhood we figured out that we could very well pull in some money from our neighbours and pay the local grocery stores for the daily provisions of the people stranded around us. As the amount needed was not much, we managed to raise the fund in a few hours, talk to the affected people about their basic requirements, negotiate a good rate with the local grocer and come up with a unit packet containing the basic provisions for a family of 4-5 people including kids to sustain for two days.

The unit packet, we settled for, contained two kilograms of rice, half a kilogram each of dal, potato and onion, half a litre of cooking oil, a packet of biscuit, some green chilies and one soap. After some negotiation, the grocer was ready to give it at 250 bucks.

Then we paid the shop through one of the digital payment apps, and requested one person from each family to collect the packet directly from the shop. This served several purposes.

Firstly, it ensured that no one had to travel beyond a few hundred metres, thus not violating the norms of the lockdown or social distancing.

Secondly, it ensured that we didn’t have to bother much about the logistics at all, thus making the entire process very simple. Our delivery channel, practically, was the existing retail supply chain, which was very much functional all over the country, even during the lockdown, and was delivering the stock regularly even to the smallest of the kirana shops, thus keeping the last mile connectivity intact everywhere, irrespective of everything. Any other delivery channel would be much less efficient and ineffective, both from the point of view of coverage and speed, compared to the supply chain of these shops.

Thirdly, it ensured that there were no middlemen and that the packets reached directly the ones they were meant for.

Finally, it ensured that there wouldn’t be any wastage, as we had given a limited quantity which would exhaust in two days.

That was how we started with twenty families around Sarjapur Road in Bangalore. As the words spread around that we had been able to deliver raw materials to more than a hundred people without much ado, and more importantly, without anyone violating any social distancing norm, our friends gave us contacts of more stranded people, from their neighbourhood. All we had to do was just talk to the local grocer, negotiate the cost of the unit packet and get it collected by one member per family.

In less than a day, we reached out to close to 150 people, across Bangalore. We felt this was indeed a viable model which could be replicated very easily in any neighbourhood. Our learnings from the entire exercise could be well leveraged by anyone interested in replicating the model. If every neighbourhood had at least one person taking this initiative, the entire problem could be solved in just a day.

The beauty of this simple model is as follows:

  1. Very minimal movement, no breaking the lockdown, no logistics, no hassles and very minimal planning. Any other form of delivery system would involve much more movement, crowding and engagement of people, either on the side of the volunteers or that of the beneficiaries, thus endangering the safety and security of both. In our model, only one person from each group or family needed to go out to the nearest grocery store and collect the provisions for two days, whenever it was convenient.
  1. Immediate delivery of essential food items to people who needed the most. There was no long and indefinite wait, crowding at the roads or at the central distribution centres.
  1. Minimal scope of leakage or hoarding as we gave provisions to each family or group of 4-5 people only for two days.
  1. Limited chance of fraudulence, as one of us always identified and authenticated each of the beneficiaries, either in person, if they were in the same neighbourhood, or through a few phone calls and some basic fact checking.

We tried to ensure, to a great extent, that we were indeed reaching out to the right people who really were in dire need. In the course of a few days, we put in place a few simple checks and balances, like insisting on two pictures (sent through WhatsApp) each of the packets collected, one at the shop, with the shopkeeper, as a the proof that the packet had been really collected from the shop, and the other with the rest of the family or group, as the proof that the person who collected the packet had really taken it home. Any lapse in this was dealt with very strictly, with immediate disqualification not only of the violating family or the group, but of the entire cluster it belonged to, thus holding every family or group as guarantee against each other.

  1. The model was simple enough to be scaled and/or replicated by anyone in her locality.
  1. Finally, the entire model maintained the safety and dignity of the beneficiaries, by not compelling them to queue up for receiving the daily provisions, or wait indefinitely in its anticipation.

Thus, applying the rudimentary concepts of networked, distributed, hyper local supply chain management, taking some cue from the ideas of Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Professor Yunus’ micro finance model, and finally, ensuring the basic principles of social distancing, we were able to reach out to around 8500 people across seven states, taking care of more than 4.5 lakh meals in a span of 45 days.

We had started with reaching out only to the stranded migrant workers, but soon we were helping daily wagers like cab drivers, skilled factory workers, plumbers, electricians, and employees in the wellness, hospitality and entertainment industries, who were not all daily wagers but had lost their wages immediately with the lockdown, petty musicians and singers who thrive on performing in trains, temples and other places, tribal rag pickers, residents of shelter-homes for orphans and senior citizens, poor villagers who live on running little errands and odd jobs, and many others.

Beginning on 30th March 2020, the Day Zero, with a small amount pulled in between neighbours and friends, the initiative grew day by day. The last payment was done on the 60th day, 29th May.

This year, in 2021, when the problem has taken a totally different turn, we’ve taken up delivering medicines and O2 concentrators, too, at doorsteps, across India, through our unique, well tested model – no logistics, no warehousing, no crowding, no hoarding, no violation of any Covid guidelines.

In the case of 02 concentrators, which cost upwards of INR 75K each, we get the equipment shipped directly to the health centres, preferably small non-government rural establishments known to any one of us, so that we could check to a great extent any misuse, fraudulence or malpractice.

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