SITTING in circles made with lime, people wait to get food at the Numaish traffic intersection.—White Star
SITTING in circles made with lime, people wait to get food at the Numaish traffic intersection.—White Star

KARACHI: Day 10 of the lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 saw increased anxiety and uncertainty amongst the city’s poorest, who had been out of work for well over a week and with no financial backup, as they hoped to get “free ration”.

The news of extension in the lockdown for another week has forced thousands of people out of homes — defying all advice on social distancing — risking their lives to get supplies.

Long queues were seen in Saddar, Kharadar, Machhar Colony, Lyari, Quaidabad, Orangi Town and other densely populated areas of Karachi as thousands of daily wage earners — mostly men and some hapless women and children huddled on footpaths — waited impatiently to receive ration supplies from camps set up by government offices, forces, welfare organisations and philanthropists.

2.5m families in Karachi need help

According to estimates by government and charitable organisations, at least 2.5 million families in the city need help. The much-coveted ration bag — with a price of Rs1,200 the cost of which is borne by donors — includes 5-10 kg of flour, lentils, ghee or oil, tea and sugar.

An app developed by the Sindh govt to provide rations to needy people at their doorsteps remains non-responsive

Daily wage earners from port, aviation and textile industry — the sectors which were the earliest victims of Covid-19 slowdown — are some of the worst hit.

Another group that faces strong food insecurity are rural migrants from south Punjab and interior Sindh, many of whom worked as farm labourers, but moved to Karachi to find work as rickshaw drivers, housemaids, masons, painters, waiters, towel sellers, street vendors and car window cleaners — all currently out of work.

A group of pensive-looking women stood at a petrol pump near Teen Talwar and begged volunteers of a charity organisation for flour. “We came all the way from Baldia to get ration. We even have our CNICs,” a woman said.

The volunteers — sitting on an empty pickup — urged the women to send a message to the charity’s number, stressing “rations will be supplied at their doorsteps”.

Most charity organisations are now demanding CNICs and list down numbers — an audit requirement — before they hand over the supplies. This means those men and women from Karachi and rural areas who do not have official IDs are left out.

“We have limited supply of goods. With each passing, more and more people are coming out and there is a lot of panic,” one of the men said.

How bad is ‘too bad’?

“For one bag of ration, there are 100 arms that reach out to grab it,” said a visibly frustrated volunteer, who has been distributing food supplies in various parts of the city for the past week.

Similar sentiments are expressed by individuals and charity workers Dawn has reached out to assess the ongoing situation.

According to the 2017 census, Sindh has a population of around 47m and of them 10m people, or 1.4m families, are daily wage earners who are outside the ambit of any organisation such as Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI) or Sindh Employees Social Security Institution (Sessi).

“It’s unfortunate that we do not have any solid data on people. Our census data will show religion but not the work one does. Seventy to 80pc of the workforce is in the informal sector or has been informalised,” said Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (Piler) who is also a member of the Tripartite Labour Standing Committee.

He feared the vulnerable communities would be at a greater risk “the longer this lockdown continues”.

The bad news, according to aid workers, is there is not enough to go around. There have been reports and videos of physical attacks and heated arguments as volunteers struggled to keep themselves safe.

The much-publicised UAN and mobile numbers of over a dozen charity organisations and philanthropists in Karachi were either turned off or busy. “It is becoming impossible to meet the demand at this point,” said an official of a charity organisation.

Overwhelming donations

“The good thing is that people are donating like crazy. Local and international donations are coming in,” said Rehan Bandukda, a Karachi-based businessman and a former general manager of the World Memon Foundation.

“The business community and average Karachiites are contributing a great deal,” he said. “People have already started to give zakat and that is sustaining the current operation, just like they did during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and 2010 floods.”

But this time the disaster is bigger — a pandemic that is sweeping across the globe. For the moneyed, businesses and jobs are at risk — which means ‘donor fatigue’ will set in soon.

“At max all of us combined can reach out to 10 per cent of the needy,” he said, highlighting the gravity of the situation.

For immediate relief, Mr Ali of Piler suggested immediate activation of union committees in mazdoor bastis (localities around industrial areas). “At the UC level, everyone knows who is who and it’s easier to manage things. Cash transfers can be done using banks accounts and branchless banking.

“The government should look up Nadra [National Database and Registration Authority] data and identify people. An example of a vulnerable household is where only one family member has a primary level education,” he added.

Mr Bandukda said: “The government must focus on quarantining suspected and confirmed cases and ensuring ‘social distancing’ during relief distributions. That’s the only area that NGOs and volunteers can’t cover.”

Sindh’s relief app not working

The Sindh Relief Initiative app — the URL for which was announced by Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah on March 29 — has been downloaded over 5,000 times till the filing of this report but remains non-responsive.

The Sindh government developed the app with the aim of “providing rations to daily wage earners and needy people on their doorsteps”.

However, the move overlooks the fact that most daily wage earners might not have smartphones and internet data packages.

The launch is not without hiccups.

“Dear App Developer kindly clear, Is this App only for social welfare organizations and NGOs. Where is the option for needy Daily wagers to register” and “I think this app Sindh Relief Initiative is not launched officially, thats why not register anyone or its a fake app” were just a few of the comments left by frustrated users.

This reporter tried to register on the app for two consecutive days. Each attempt led to the following message: ‘Login failed: Invalid username or password’ or ‘you are not authorised to use this app’.

When contacted, Adviser to CM Sindh, Murtaza Wahab said he was not aware of the problems with the app since the Provincial Disaster Managment Authority was handling it.

Responding to Dawn, PMDA Sindh DG Salman Shah, who is currently under quarantine, said, “The app is still under development. It will be owned by the department once its handover from the [app] developer takes place.”

No verification message was received till the filing of this report.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2020