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Beggars and jail birds join the battle against the virus

SAM SPECIAL-ENG-22-04-2020
Siliguri beggars contributing to the CM's COVID-19 fund

Even before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for national solidarity in the face of the mounting challenge from the novel coronavirus, beggars, prisoners and other marginalized persons set an example by coming together for a national cause despite great personal hardships.

On April 3, Modi had asked every Indian family to light a candle or a diya an earthen lamp or flash a torchlight or even mobile flashlights for nine minutes at 9 pm on April 5, to show that India’s 1.3 billion people are united in the battle against the contagion.

Modi said that it is symbolic challenge to the darkness being spread by the coronavirus. It is meant to show the power of light to awaken the superpower of 1.3 billion Indians. This was Modi’s second appeal to Indians in a span of 10 days. The first was a call for a 14-hour Janata curfew or people’s curfew from 7 am to 5 pm, when he asked Indians to ring bells, bang utensils and clap hands, to thank doctors and healthcare workers in the forefront of the fight against the contagion. But the intended collective show of solidarity was transformed into a celebration of sorts.   

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However on April 1, a group of 25 beggars and vagabonds from the northern West Bengal city of Siliguri, chipped in to donate Rs.417 to the West Bengal Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to fight the new coronavirus.

The mendicants usually hang around a temple in the city’s central district, waiting for alms from devotees visiting the temple, says Sakti Paul, the founder member of Siliguri Unique Foundation Team, a not-for-profit organization that initiated the collection of donations.

 “Their contribution, though small, assumes great significance since it comes at a time when the regular flow of alms has dried up following the lockdown,” Paul told South Asian Monitor. The 25-member Unique Foundation Team has been providing free lunch since 2018 to impoverished people and vagabonds who hang outside the temple. 

The beggars had themselves had asked how they could contribute to the Chief Minister’s Covid-19 Relief Fund. “They willingly contributed whatever little they possessed. Some of them contributed Rs.2, some Rs.5 coins, while others chipped in with amounts between Rs.10 and Rs.50, even though they were struggling to afford a day’s meal,” said 28 yearold Paul, who serves with the Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force of India posted in the Northeastern Indian state of Manipur.

The foundation collects goods and essential commodities, including uncooked rice, lentils, cooking oil, and vegetables from donors across the city. These are distributed among people in remote villages and slum dwellers in the towns who are in need of such supplies because of the loss of the employment following the lockout. 

On March 31, soon after Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set up the COVID-19 relief fund, 12 inmates of the Midnapore Central Correctional Home in the state collected Rs.66,500 and donated it to the CM’s relief fund. The donation came from their earnings from doing different jobs in the jail.

A top police official in-charge of jails in the State personally felicitated the inmates with a flower bouquet and sweets. Chief Minister Banerjee too appreciated the touching gesture shown by the prisoners saying “every single rupee donated by the common people of the State will help in overcoming the coronavirus crisis”.

Besides financial help, inmates of different prisons in the Indian state are also contributing to the cause by making Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and masks for healthcare workers.

Five inmates of the Berhampore Central Correctional Home are engaged in making PPE, while others are producing masks, says jail superintendent Debasish Chakraborty.

West Bengal, like others States in India, is facing a shortage of PPEs and masks and whatever little contribution the prisons can make, is going to help in the fight against COVID-19,” Chakraborty told South Asian Monitors by phone from Berhampore in Mursidabad district of West Bengal.

 “The masks being made by the prisoners are being supplied to 26 prisons across northern West Bengal. The 20 inmates engaged in making masks in our jail are able to turn out more than 750 masks every day,” he said.

Chakraborty said that the Chief Medical Officer of the district recently visited the jail to personally supervise the quality of the protective gears that the inmates had learnt to make by seeing some pictures shown to them on WhatsApp.

 “The inmates got tailoring training in the jail itself. The best five in the business are now making the suits at the rate of one a day,” Chakraborty said. 

The prison chief said that they have also started receiving orders from pharmaceutical units and traders in Berhampore city, better known for the historical Battle of Plassey in June 1757.

Rabisankar Rabi, the medical officer at the correctional home, says the suits were good enough for protection against contagions, and that he himself had worn one during health check-ups. 

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 “The target is to make 25 suits and supply prisons in other districts,” Rabi said. 

However, the gears would not be used by medical staff directly dealing with COVID-19 positive patients. The suits are being used by the prison medical and healthcare staff. “The suit will be ideal for healthcare workers doing door-to-door survey of people suffering from cold and cough,” Rabi said.

 “We have been making protective gears since March 20 and we hope the inmates will be able to increase production to meet the growing demand.” Chakraborty said.