Ejipura Diary: 23, 24 and 25 January, 2013

23rd January 2013

The word has spread: offers of food, clothes and blankets pour in from across the city for the next 24 hrs, non-stop. I am back in my sustainable, gated, ivory tower, glued to my hands-free while Sumathi, Sunil and Vinay are on the ground, helping with food, guiding volunteers, negotiating with police, taking the elderly to shelters and trying to keep the bulldozers at bay. Gee and Kaveri plunge back into relief work, despite their bail conditions being easy to misconstrue by any of the police around.

In the course of a few days, I speak to other people who I will begin to rely on more than family in the weeks to come for the first time. Mayank and Yateesh offer to raise money to buy 400 blankets, Lavanya, Gayatri and Prabha help provide home-cooked dinner and breakfast for the next couple of days and put me in touch with doctors and fellow volunteers. Dr. Sylvia is on site every other day. Ashlin, Abhishek, Siddharth, Eli and Dorji dedicatedly serve food at every shift. Musheer from Shalimar Hotel, Akshay Patra, Kevin and Mr. Mannivannan become food sources to count on. Then there are familiar names of people I’ve known of but never really knew. JP, a writer friend of my husband’s is there every morning at 9 to help with the breakfast shift. Geeta, mother of a friend and colleague, organises food from hotel banquets. I find out that the woman volunteering for the lunch shift is set to marry my uncle later this week.

We set up a Facebook page and start getting help from the very first day.

In between calls, the mind strays to whether this is all a hair too late; that the worst had been done, and here we were, handing out food packets and mineral water. I question my own motives, of whether this was a wave not of sympathy, but guilt that this was done for the discerning dollar of world-class citizens like myself. I swallow the thought and keep the gratitude as it keeps coming.

Slowly, the press is interested in the wave of humanitarian relief that was making its way to the site, just as we we wonder why no one but The Hindu or Citizen Matters would report it for the tragedy it is.

24th January 2013

Just as 500 blankets reached the site the previous evening, news trickled in that an elderly woman had died out in the cold. The seriousness of what we were trying to do versus what they were faced with hit home harder than ever before. More blankets, more water, more volunteers, more logistical nightmares and hidden blessings arrived through the day, just as the police constantly kept threatening to throw out residents’ belongings.

Every time this would happen, we’d send a message out to our volunteers and friends in the media and when they got there, the threats would stop. Many of them started to believe that we were hysterical activists, crying wolf. But if it weren’t for the few who showed up consistently, demolitions would have finished in 2 days flat.

Every time there were no core volunteers on shift, when activists and lawyers were out lobbying for temporary shelters and stopping demolitions, getting verbal assurances from everyone from the Chief Secretary, the CM,  the Mayor, the BBMP Commissioner and the Home Minister, houses were simultaneously being razed down at EWS. Barricades were put up on the main road, forcing volunteers to haul food and water for hundreds of people on foot. An exodus had already begun and many people fled to find shelter in a Slum Board housing project in Sarjapura, only to find themselves without a house, sleeping in the corridors in the cold, with no water, food or help for miles in sight, their children miles away from school and their jobs left behind. The only succor was that they were finally at a distance away from the constant intimidation and harassment and noise and horror and panic that had turned those in Ejipura to nervous wrecks.

In the afternoon, we receive word that the police were threatening to kick out all people by 4 pm, once and for all. Violent confrontation seemed imminent and we sent word out to all the volunteers to get there as soon as they could. Volunteers themselves were constantly being threatened to stop relief work. One of the locals who was helping serve food was beaten up by the police and taken to the station. The police build up grew; we continued to fear the worst as night unfolded, largely without incident. We count and thank our stars.

25th January 2013

A protest had taken place that morning outside the CM’s residence, but was stalled by the police who jeered at activists and students who joined the residents. “The lady policewomen were laughing at us, saying why are you joining them, do you think it will make any difference? Don’t waste your time in this heat and go back home,” said a student from St. Joseph’s.

For the rest of us, it was a day of relative peace. Blankets, clothes, medicines and doctors arrive at the scene, as we decided to schedule a volunteer meeting to address many different concerns- from whether we needed to be giving out money for advances, whether we could possibly work together with all the different groups in place, but most importantly, how many people were left and what did they have to show to qualify for either government rehabilitation (if it ever materialised) or the advances being offered by other parties involved in relief. Trust was at an all-time low with relief money coming in and we had no new information- many people didn’t have even basic documentation to qualify for help, while others, despite having a full deck of cards, had not received any compensation or proof of any alternative accommodation.

Tensions had already been created between original allottees and renters, and rents in nearby parts of the city had started skyrocketing. We decided that the most important thing to be done was a social survey- and that all parties needed to come together to clear any confusion on each other’s parts and work together. The biggest question that still remains is this- does helping with rehabilitation mean letting those responsible for their condition completely off the hook?

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