Unleashing civic spirit in the time of coronavirus


“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” is a famous quote of former US President John F. Kennedy. During any disaster that strikes a country or a pandemic at the scale of Covid-19, there is an opportunity; an opportunity to serve anyone in need, an opportunity to lend a hand even if one is in a not so well-to-do position in his/her personal capacity, an opportunity to keep one’s ears and eyes open to the ground and be there as an encouraging voice in such difficult times. In these times, it is often the civic spirit of, for and by the people that helps, enables and is a source of immense strength.  In the times of Covid-19, right since the national lockdown in the country began in March, there have been calls for help that has seen organic response from citizens to be there for their own. It is hard to measure and quantify it, but the solidarity displayed in ensuring that we must be there for the last man and woman in our villages, districts and cities is evidenced for all to see. The help spearheaded by citizens has been prompt and effective in dealing with those in need with utmost care, sensitivity and concern.

And all this has only strengthened the resolve of the Government of India, all front-line workers including medical staff and the police and the 1.3 billion population, to face a never seen pandemic.  I am not discounting the relentless work put in by government agencies. But be it in ensuring that no one goes to sleep hungry or providing shelter or simply answering request calls, ‘sheroes’ and heroes from the civil society have emerged.  Fondly known as Kamala paati (grandma), an octogenarian from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu whose video of making and selling idlis for Rs 1 went viral in 2019, has come forward to support the migrant workers in and around her district. Even though the situation has been bad, she has not altered the rates of her idlis and has continued to feed the migrant workers and has also sought their help in making idlis. Till this day, several people belonging to the diaspora, especially in the US, are seeking her details to see if they can donate to her cause. Such is the aura and phenomenon that Kamala paati is.  Once the lockdown was announced in India, the guest migrant workers in various states were the worst hit.

Aarti Madhusudan, who is part of the DAV Group of Schools, had received a call from unknown migrant workers who had been left without food for close to two days, some even three days. As and when she received such constant requests, she made it a point to make use of social media to help, be it food, clothes or shelter. Challenges during a pandemic can be of a different magnitude and kind. Another striking example of civic spirit was discernible when transgender communities, especially sex workers of the Karumbumalai slum near Madurai, were in dire need of groceries and ration. Their families are the poorest of the poor with hunger staring at them in the face, and it took a concerted effort on the part of Jayapradeep Jiothis, an entrepreneur who ensured that he did his bit in quickly collecting the necessary groceries and ration for the families living in the slum.

The needs of the differently abled also must be catered to. Reference to this, Sridhar, who leads Inspirations Trust, has taken the lead in providing to the differently abled in and around Chennai the necessary groceries and ration kits. At any given time, Sridhar has a set of 15 volunteers to help him with distribution as per emergency requests.   Liasioning with organisations and workers across the country who are espousing this cause can also be a great learning. There may not be a specified timing at which the requests will come one’s way. During a pandemic, one must be available 24×7. As a matter of fact, requests are still flooding in to help migrant workers from other states who have undertaken the arduous walk to their respective homes. 

When Dr B.R. Ambedkar moved the draft Constitution in the assembly in November 1948, it was “we the people” who resolved into the making of India. In a lot of ways, it signified how the Constitution had its roots from the people. Yet again, the crisis of the pandemic has shown us the resolve and power of the people when it comes to helping the needy. It has shown us the silent but effective power of civil momentum, the power to act. The author is Senior Research Fellow and Administrative Head at India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power.