Today, we have with us Miriam Koshy, the founder of COVID Outreach Goa (COG), a civil society group that has provided crucial life-saving support to thousands of migrant workers in Goa during the lockdown. We are grateful to her for agreeing to this interview with Lockdown Voices, inspite of a very hectic schedule.
Lockdown Voices (LV): People across the country have felt disturbed by the migrant worker crisis. But few felt they themselves could make a difference. What was your source of inspiration / confidence in forming COVID Outreach Goa (COG)?
Miriam Koshy (MK): Like most people I had been watching the impact of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown across the world and India.The lockdown revealed our complete and glaring unpreparedness. The first week showed the stark contrast of citizens scrambling to get their gourmet fix, while large numbers hadn’t eaten in days with no recourse to their next meal.
When I came across the first SOS call, I felt compelled to respond and shared the urgency of the situation with friends who responded immediately. From thereon, its been a heart-warming groundswell of support, in kind and in person. As I dealt with each new challenge and spoke about it, there would come from somewhere or the other, an immediate response – from the local community, pan India and even across the globe. This is what has built my confidence to take up each task at hand and prepare for those that lie ahead.
The team formed quite organically and ironically, the first lot came from the very same gourmet fix group. Restaurateurs, Techpreneurs, DJ’s, Architects, Counsellors, Writers, Lawyers, Artists, Students, all rolled up their sleeves to get things done. Right from packing, inventory management, data collection, data entry, distribution, surveys, tele-calling follow-ups, shelter patrolling, booking buses and taxis for stranded workers to reach stations, pretty much everything. We also had individuals sitting at home (many senior citizens) making bags for us to repackage rations. It became a truly citizens’ movement. Eventually, the people from the communities we served came on board as volunteers :).
LV: Very inspiring! Indeed where there is a will, there is a way. Going beyond the immediate food and shelter crisis, your team found that psychological stress led to migrant workers wanting to go to their villages, even at the cost of their health and safety. Can you please elaborate?
MK: Having been with these communities from the beginning of lockdown, we were witness to the gradual escalation in levels of anguish, anger and a growing sense of hopelessness, manifesting in suicidal thoughts. This was borne not only of the lack of basics, but heightened by desperate calls from home pleading with them to return to family and farm.
Rising anguish and anxiety
In India, March to June are the months when Rural India harvest their Rabi crops, plant their Zaid crops and prepare for the planting of the Kharif crops at the beginning of monsoon. Workers usually head back in phases to rejoin their families to support them in this activity.
Migration is an integral and cyclical part of livelihood building – all with the goal of bettering lives for their families back home. Instead, these very families back home have had to mortgage what little they had to money lenders, in order to feed their primary breadwinners stranded in other states without access to adequate and regular rations .
This, compounded by the increasing hostility faced from landlords, as they were unable to pay rents, led many to take desperate measures to leave for home, either on foot or by paying extortionist rates to truck drivers to smuggle them across borders.
LV: A grim reality that many are not aware of. What measures did you have to take to address the mental trauma of this group?
MK: It increasingly became evident to us that an intervention was required to help them in their hour of mental crisis. For this we reached out to Caritas Goa, a charitable trust, to put together a team of trained mental health counsellors. At first, this exercise was viewed as a futile attempt in the clusters.
Gradually, however many of them were coming out voluntarily to pour their hearts out. Their hopes, their dreams, their crushed expectations, their needs, their fears, their families, their lack of work, their poverty, their insecurities, their health, their villages, and their helplessness, all were discussed. Some of them came out the second time to talk to the counsellors. We ended up conducting counselling sessions for 51 migrant labourers in the clusters that we identified as the most vulnerable ones.
Listening created hope
LV: We can imagine most migrant folks looking at city people as their exploiters. How did your team establish trust and get them to open up?
MK: Trust was built organically. We were there right through – listening to them, informing them, sharing news with them, taking calls at all odd hours. Be it from requests for food to anguished suicide calls at 11.30 pm. We visited them twice to thrice a week, spent time assuaging fears and answering queries, doing surveys, informing them of Central Govt. schemes they could avail of to help their families back home and in some cases even helping mobilise it remotely.
We continued to support them each step of the way, be it from scheduled ration distribution, to helping them register themselves for the Shramik trains, to alerting them when their time to travel came, to helping those left out, to supplementing food at and outside shelters / holding areas. Even stepping in to ensure that they got food while on the train or buses back to their districts, in case they were not allowed to disembark at the station they needed to get off at.
LV: You and your team were really a blessing to these homebound workers. But many were not interested in going back home. What happened to them?
MK: Ration and food distribution was to be a temporary relief measure that extended beyond its time for reasons beyond our control. It became clear that the only way to reduce dependence of the groups on Govt. measures or charity was to provide access to work.
We were already collecting exhaustive data for verification to hand over to the Government, during the relief work. Using this data, we created COGOLD (COVID Outreach Goa Online Labour Directory), an online interface for the local community to access the help they needed, based on the mapping of skill set and location of workers.
To create employment opportunities for these workers, we encouraged projects like rain water harvesting and organic / kitchen gardening. These projects help meet the ever growing needs of self sufficiency in water and food. We also on-boarded field experts who offered free consultancy services to motivate the community to take these steps.
LV: What future do you see for the migrant workers? Will they be willing to work in cities again, given the raw treatment most have experienced?
MK: Yes, the overwhelming response, despite the treatment they have received is that they will be back when Corona is under control. Bonds have been built over this crisis – bridging the gaps between this vulnerable and voiceless section of our society and those that are willing to stand by them and get their voice across.
LV: COG is a civil society group and most of the members are not permanent. How do you plan to continue your work to support the migrant population within and outside Goa?
MK: While COG was borne of a crisis response, the path ahead is clear. We have been building towards it since mid-April as larger systemic gaps came into sharper focus. We want to drive lasting change that goes beyond the present moment through a long-term organisation that takes us ahead in big ways and small, aligning with other movements geared for justice.
COVID Outreach Goa has already begun the process of becoming Change On Ground. This will be a Foundation uniting volunteers and experts from many disciplines, to drive lasting change on multiple fronts of work-related practices and policy through:
- Action to improve the quality of essentials such as health, sanitation, education and accommodation
- Access to existing Government initiatives like Public Distribution Systems from any location and the Central Government Schemes of Relief .
- Advocacy through humanistic documentation and evidence-based research to help drive legal reform
- Awareness of universal rights to help improve working conditions and access to opportunities
- Association with other individuals and groups who share these goals, learning and working together
LV: Based on your experience, what steps should be taken by the Govt., society, policy makers and others to ensure this scale of migrant worker crisis does not happen again?
MK: The Government and society needs to stop looking at inter-state workers as unequal citizens who can be treated like cattle. Central and State Governments need to put in place a social security system that ensures “portability of rights to food and cash” across the country, allowing them access to benefits both in host and domicile states.
The Govt. should start mapping workers by skill / location and implementing livelihood schemes to ensure that the reverse migration does not explode into another crisis in home states. Most importantly, there is a need to strengthen Labour Laws and expand them to cover the unorganised sector.
LV: And finally, how can an average citizen, unable to move out with worries about catching infection, contribute to this cause?
MK: By writing in to Civil Society Organisations and asking how they can help. A lot of our work, especially with respect to surveys and awareness drives have been done via tele-calling, by mobilising aid, by building in the advocacy efforts. Everyone has some skills that organisations like ours can work with to build back better.
LV: Thank you Miriam for giving us a glimpse of the outstanding work you and your team are doing. We wish you the very best in your endeavours. Please stay safe!
Miriam Koshy was a curator and gallerist for 14 years before she decided to make time for her own art practice. A management graduate from GIM who found her way back to art.
When the migrant worker crisis unfolded unjustly, she felt compelled to hold space and serve as a medium to channelise relief and rehabilitation work on ground. The deep seated socioeconomic roots of this marginalisation stood out in sharp focus and required of her, a more long term engagement that resulted in the formation of COG (Change On Ground).
Cover Image: GSIDC
Story images : COG
Video courtesy – 3MinuteStories.com
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