For this teacher of sociology and JNU alum, relief work is about more than just looking out for immediate needs during a crisis.
Ruksana, a tailor who lives in north-east Delhi, felt helpless when violence hit the area in February—while organizations were providing immediate relief like rations and essentials, her biggest loss was the dignity of being able to earn a living independently. Her sewing machine had been destroyed and she did not have the money to buy a new one.
Two weeks later, covid-19 began to spread across the country, and the first few cases surfaced in the Capital. While the residents of north-east Delhi were only just starting to come to terms with the extent of the destruction of lives and livelihoods, the lockdown stalled all rebuilding efforts.
“We spoke to donors, arranged a sewing machine, some starting money, and what Ruksana did was, she began making masks,” says 32-year-old Sana Khan. “So we bought 1,500 masks from her, each mask cost ₹15. It worked out—we have been buying them from her and putting them in kits that we distribute as part of our covid-19 relief efforts,” she adds.
Khan is no ordinary relief worker. Her attempt is to combine the need for immediate relief with the long term. She has been someone who follows up, stays connected and becomes deeply invested in anyone she is helping—working towards rebuilding lives rather than simply meeting urgent requirements. “We have really taken on a lot, dipped our feet in everything. But it’s difficult to stop now because people depend on us, they have our word.” Over the last few months, she has helped those most affected—whether it is people suffering at the intersection of the covid-19-induced lockdown and the violence in north-east Delhi, daily-wage earners across the city, migrant workers who need to go home, or those who lost their homes when cyclone Amphan ripped through West Bengal in May.
All this has not been without challenges. Other than the everyday logistical issues, says Khan, identity has started weighing heavy on relief work. The climate since the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), talk of a nationwide National Register of Citizens and the ensuing protests, has become particularly hostile. “We have also had cases where we would have to deliver kits and when recipients found out it’s coming from a Muslim person, they would say ‘humein nahi chahiye (we don’t want it),’” says Khan. “It’s really sad when you feel the weight of your name and being a Muslim matters so much that people think ‘hum bhooke hi reh lenge (we would rather go hungry)’ instead of accepting essentials from us. I mean, that level of hatred…is something we have not experienced.”
Khan remains undeterred. She and her team have connected donors to nearly 20 pregnant women in north-east Delhi—they will provide for healthcare since many of the husbands were daily-wage earners who lost their livelihood during the lockdown. “We even raised funds to buy some of them carts so they could sell vegetables while their (cycle) rickshaws were defunct. Now that things are opening up, some of them are doing both,” Khan says.
Growing up, she says, discrimination started early but it wasn’t as rampant as it is today. “I remember when I was in class VI, a girl asked me whether I loved being Indian more or Muslim more, I was so confused!” recalls Khan, whose father served in the army. Her involvement with activism, however, started in a piecemeal way when she was part of the dramatics society at Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University.
It was only much later, in 2016, that she became committed to the cause of social justice. Khan was pursuing a master’s in sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and in February that year, then JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar and other students were arrested on charges of sedition. “In 2016, for most of us it was a turning point where we realized we can’t just stay inside the hostel rooms. There are a lot of protests that happened but you don’t participate in all, till you really feel they matter. In 2016, we felt directly attacked.”
When news of stranded migrant workers began to emerge as the prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown from 25 March with very little warning, Khan swung into action. She initiated Project Rebuilding Livelihoods, which made its way to Instagram and Facebook.
After conducting classes on Skype all morning—she is a teacher of sociology at Maitreyi College, Delhi University—she would spend her days coordinating the relief effort. They collected over ₹15 lakh, delivered close to 2,000 ration kits, served over 10,500 cooked meals and provided more than 200 families with financial or medical assistance in April alone. Khan even collaborated with the Delhi government to provide ration kits when funds started drying up.
Her phone number had been circulated and workers from Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and even Kashmir began reaching out to her for help. “So we put together a list of 135 people who were supposed to go to Bihar. We approached the Bihar government and they said they would help. Eventually, around 700 migrants were off to Bihar and West Bengal through all the lists we provided,” says Khan.
But around 80 of these workers, who made their way home to West Bengal, lived in the South and North 24 Parganas districts. They lost their homes to cyclone Amphan on 20 May. “So we did a fund-raiser for that as well, raised about ₹1 lakh, which we transferred to two of the organizations working on the ground in Bengal—QYNS and Bengal Relief Collective,” she says. “There is so much devastation happening simultaneously, so we have been doing all these things side by side.”
Through all this, Khan does fear the virus at home. Her father-in-law is diabetic, so she isolates as much as she can, given that she needs to be on the ground for relief work. Her family, however, is supportive. “They keep joking, saying I am like a call centre, because I get calls for relief work at all hours of the day and night,” she says.
Before the pandemic hit, she would volunteer with the library started by writer Mridula Koshy at the Hauz Rani protest site during the anti-CAA sit-in. There, she came in contact with 14-year-old Saif Ali Khan, who would sell vegetables after he finished classes at school. And it is through him that she connected with families in Hauz Rani that needed help during the lockdown.
Working together with the NGOs Goonj and Yellow Streets, she would ride over on her scooty to their centre. What she describes next, with amusement, is an enduring visual of Khan as a relief worker: a formidable force, dressed in yellow and white, puttering along on a grey Activa with a truckload of resources in tow, to provide relief in the snaking by-lanes of Hauz Rani.