Strangers become family at COVID relief camps

Inmates deal with loneliness, lack of income

By Daiaphira Kharsati

SHILLONG: Amara Sangma, Lucky Marak and Gelika Arengh were strangers to each other until they met at a relief camp, set up in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, in the city about two weeks ago. Now, they are a family, sharing the same anxiety, pain and a life away from loved ones.
At the COVID-19 relief camp for women at the Tennis Court in JN Stadium, there are 14 inmates, including children. Most of them are from Garo Hills and some are from Assam. They miss their homes and are finding themselves helpless in the absence of a livelihood.
“They have no rented place and no food and so they came here. Some NGOs and restaurants give them food,” the camp manager said, adding that doctors also come for regular check-up.
Twenty-year-old Sangma, a native of Tura, worked in a shop in Police Bazar and lived in a rented accommodation in Lumparing here. But she did not receive salary for a month and found it convenient to stay in the camp.
Marak, also from Tura, worked as a domestic help in a house at Alugudam but was asked to leave by the house owners in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the relief camp, a two-storeyed spacious building, is the temporary home for her and her two daughters, one seven and the other six.
While the children were seen busy with their soft toys and playing with the police women on duty, the 25-year-old mother is anxious to go back to Tura.
“I miss my home so much,” said 40-year-old Gelika Arengh, a resident of Dakokgre.
Arengh had gone to Balat to visit her son but with no means of communication, she had to stay back in Shillong. She owns a small shop in Tura and is a single mother. But at present, Arengh has no source of income.
According to a central order, daily wage earners and BPL cardholders will receive Rs 1,000 a month. The camp manager said the bank accounts of the women have already been listed and sent to the government for money transfer.
But Arengh pointed out that poor families like hers are staring at uncertainty after the lockdown and “Rs 1,000 is not enough to run the household”.
“At least the government should think of giving Rs 4,000-5,000,” she said.
For Onila Marak and Morny Marak, it is separation by a few meters. While the wives are staying in the women’s camp, the husbands are in the male camp in Polo.
Onila and her husband, who was a worker in a wood factory in Umiam, are from Williamnagar. Morny’s husband was a cook at CPWD, Dhankheti. “We asked for quarters but they are not paying attention,” said the resident of Goalpara.
There are two camps for men at Polo — one housing 247 inmates and the other 61. Most of the men are daily wage earners and some are security personnel or restaurant workers.
“There is no work and we cannot go home. Though back home my wife and children are getting some essential items,” said P Hajong, who worked as a labourer at Jingkieng, Nongthymmai, and got Rs 400 per day.
Food for the male inmates is provided by a caterer.
Many families living in villages are feeling the heat in absence of an income. “My family is struggling financially as money cannot be sent back home to Bajengdoba,” said Pintu Momin, who worked an electrician at Umsawli and earned Rs 500 a day.
He said that he came to the relief camp on his own as he was apprehensive of not getting a vehicle to go back home.
A daily wage earner at a construction site in Laban, Chungba Sangma was told to leave as there was no work. He is from Kharkutta and earned Rs 400 per day.
At Pynthorumkhrah Golf Links Higher Secondary School, there are 61 male inmates most of whom hail from Garo Hills and have been at the relief camp since March 30. They are labourers from Shillong city and the outskirts.
Some of the inmates came to the camps themselves seeking shelter and some were brought in by the police and authorities.
The camp manager has chosen a team leader for communication. One of the team leaders, Latmin Sangma, said they are not availing any facilities from the government. There are also many like Sengbath Sangma from Kharkutta in North Garo Hills who worked in restaurants in Upper Shillong.
The story of Bipul Sangma from Dainadubi is also the same. The house painter earned Rs 400 a day but with no money now, “my family is struggling at home and surviving on whatever they have”, said the father of two children.
“Most of them do not have bank account. We are taking their closest kin’s account number… Condition is not good. They (the inmates) want to go home but because of the situation they cannot go. Most of them are bread earners. NGOs are giving them food,” said the camp manager, adding that the inmates are getting lunch, dinner, breakfast and evening snacks. Toiletries are also provided.
Another person who works at Garikhana originally from Assam Meghalaya border, Pinku Shira works as a daily wage labourer. The father of one earned Rs 350 a day but his daily wage was deducted by middlemen.
Besides loneliness and longing for families, the inmates at the camps have other problems. Some of them in one of the men’s camps said water is a problem as the pipeline is blocked.
Water is supplied by the municipality and the camp manager at the Pynthorumkhrah school said there is no scarcity. There is, however, a shortage of masks.
When asked how the inmates are spending time in absence of a television, the camp manager said he organised a football match on Sunday morning. “We are trying to think of more innovative ways to keep them entertained,” he added.
Tough timings
The government officials and the volunteers deployed at the relief camps are working long hours and without any leave. The camp managers start their work at 8 am and stay on till the inmates finish their dinner.
“We cannot help it as this is a crisis time and these people need our help. We have to ensure their well-being,” said one of them.
Any new inmate who comes to a camp has to undergo thorough medical tests.
Urban poor’s plight
Twelve households, with at least five members in a family, live in shabbily constructed houses made of wood and corrugated iron sheets at Demseiniong. The small and dingy rooms are dark and claustrophobic and each family has to shell out Rs 2,000 on rent.
“We have no BPL cards and we have been getting nothing from the government. We applied but did not get,” two women, Aroti Das and Mampi Barma, said.
Vinod Paswan from Bihar has been staying in Demseiniong for 40 years and said they are struggling to get food. The residents would fetch water from a nearby stream.
A taxi driver and resident of Fourth Furlong, Hari Kishore Prasad, from Bihar said his family is getting the daily ration of 5 kg rice but complained it is not enough for his family of five.
He lives in a one-room house that costs him Rs 3,200 a month. Though Prasad has got financial help from the owner of the taxi that he drives, he is still waiting for some breather on rent.
At Lumparing, a coolie, Vicky Marbaniang said they are getting rice for Rs 3/kg. He earns about Rs 400 per day. “It is hard as there is no work,” he said, adding that they are getting vegetables from the nearby forest.
As for the Covid-19 fight, he said he is aware of using sanitisers, masks and washing of hands frequently.
Another resident, Seeta Thapa, has four children and is struggling to feed them following the death of her husband four months ago.
Good Samaritans
In this time of lockdown, many NGOs and civil societies have extended support to the poor, especially in the urban areas. One such organisation is the Goraline Gurudwara of Laitumkhrah. A dedicated team distributes food among the poor in the Polo area and the hospital attendees at Ganesh Das and NEIGRIHMS.
The members also distribute tea and biscuits among passers-by and the police personnel on duty.
“Whoever is there, we give them. The fund is being collected from the committee members of the Gurudwara,” a member said.

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