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'The main challenge is social distancing in slums'

By LAXMI NEGI
May 10, 2020 12:22 IST
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'When we talk about social distancing, it almost impossible to maintain this in slums.'
'So we had to talk to the people about cleanliness.'
'It was a task because everybody uses public toilets. So our volunteers targeted those spots to spread awareness.'

IMAGE: Ashok Rathod and his team distribute essentials and explains safety norms to slum dwellers in Colaba, south Mumbai. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Ashok Rathod was just 18 when he started the Oscar Foundation, an organisation which helps children and youth from low-income communities to complete their formal education through its Football and Life Skills programme.

Born and raised in the Ambedkar Nagar slum in Colaba, south Mumbai, Rathod, now 30, has travelled across the world to spread his ideas and raise funds.

Today, when the community needs him most, he is there for them; not yet satisfied with what he has already done.

"I shouldn't be able to say no to anyone who needs help," Rathod tells Laxmi Negi/Rediff.com.

When did Oscar start COVID-19 relief work?

On March 8, International Women's Day, Oscar was planning to organise a workshop on gender stereotyping. It was supposed to be a huge gathering of almost 400 to 500 speakers, coaches and players.

At the time there was just one case of COVID-19 in India, but our team canceled the workshop just two days prior to the event. I am glad we did it because the situation is grim.

When sports events were getting cancelled and cases were going up, from March 15 onwards, we started spreading awareness among the basti people.

When we talk about social distancing, it almost impossible to maintain this in slums. So we had to talk to the people about cleanliness.

It was a task because everybody uses public toilets. There are 14 public toilets in Ambedkar Nagar so our volunteers targeted those spots to spread awareness.

We were talking to people about safety guidelines and washing hands.

We were telling them that soap is as important as sanitisers.

We also spoke to the toilet caretakers because they are more at risk. We told them to save the basti and themselves.

Ashok Rathod

Haven't your parents stopped you from venturing out?

Of course, they are worried!

Sab ghar baith jayenge toh kaise chalega?>/em> (If everyone sits at home, how will society function?)

My parents know I follow safety measures. When I go for (food) distribution, the police informs me if it is a red zone area (an area with coronavirus positive patients) so I do not go to their doorstep but call them outside to receive the essentials.

How supportive were the locals with your suggestions?

I have stayed there and been working in the Ambedkar Nagar slum for 12 years.

800 kids from here come for Oscar programmes. So far we have reached out to 2,500 children in that area.

Some bright children have gone abroad to play football through our foundation.

People here are quite happy with our work and therefore when we go to speak to them, they listen to us.

Sometimes, police personnel come with us to spread awareness. I have a police pass so I am able to travel on my two-wheeler in south Mumbai and able to carry out relief work.

Is it challenging to talk to people about safety measures?

The main challenge is social distancing in slums.

How can 5 to 6 people stay in a small room? Some rooms don't even have windows!

And when people, mostly men, come out for some fresh air, the police are very strict with them.

I try and intervene, try to explain to the police personnel about the slum dwellers's dilemma.

Ashok Rathod

What is the situation in Ambedkar Nagar?

Most of them are without any jobs. Their main question is: How will we feed our children?’

There were so many elderly people in the community who are jobless and were going without food. The neighbours were helping them.

There were widows who were surviving on the leftovers provided by their neighbours.

In these tough times, the entire community is suffering.

No one is so financially stable that they can manage a month or two without salary and feed their neighbours too.

So we came up with a six-point criteria and, based upon that, with the help of our youth leaders we identified 100 families and distributed essentials.

Ashok Rathod

How much essentials you have distributed?

As of now, the Oscar Foundation has distributed essentials care packages to 200 families.

A lot of individual donors and other NGOs are helping us. Atul Gupta and Helping Hands are two worthy mentions who have raised approximately three lakh rupees and are still raining money for OSCAR COVID-19 relief.

Mazagaon Dock Shipbuilders Limited, as part of its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility ) activity, supported 200 families.

Annam Trust helped another 200 families through our organisation.

Two days ago I got a call from an NGO who provided us with 600 masks which I collected and distributed in Ambedkar Nagar.

Women in Ambedkar Nagar were covering their faces with dupattas or saris.

Children were roaming without masks. At least, some of them will have masks now.

The police is playing an influential role.

When a few labourers were roaming aimlessly in Charni Road (south Mumbai), the police confronted them. They were Zunka Bhakar (a chain of Mumbai eateries that provides cheap food) workers. Fourteen of them were holed up in a single room.

The police contacted us, asking whether we could help them. We provided them with a month's essentials.

In another incident, 230 labourers were stuck in a building at Opera House (south Mumbai); the contractor got in touch with us to help them as he didn't have any money. Sahil Bohra donated three lakh rupees to support those workers for two months.

Forty per cent of our staff comes from slum areas. They are also suffering.

A few days ago, I got a call from Mankhurd (north Mumbai). We arranged to transfer cash to them so that they could buy essentials.

We have some volunteers in the United Kingdom. They have seen the situation in the slums here and therefore have sent some relief material. They have also donated towards our relief aid.

I received a call from Kamathipura (central Mumbai), asking for essentials for 300 families. We have helped 50 families so far.

We are getting calls from Panvel too, but we don't have logistics to help people from that far.

I am working on all these things. I am not able to say no to anyone who needs help.

I am glad we have people who want to help, and not only who need help, connecting with us.

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LAXMI NEGI / Rediff.com
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