Amidst the chaos and despair that was spreading unabated, Ujjwala Tai and Madhuri Tai of the Kolivada fishing community approached Vrutti, a non-profit for the distribution of rations and other essentials. Vrutti is a part of the #COVIDActionCollaborative (CAC), a collaborative of over 300+ organizations spread across India. CAC acted as a binding factor for bringing in resource organizations, academic organizations, and grassroot level organizations together to create a sustainable impact. By working together, the organizations aim to derive strength from each other’s expertise and fill in the gaps where required. The first model of their collaboration specifically managed the loss of livelihood, the rural poor, and the inaccessibility of resources that they were trying to sustain themselves. They believed that all the organizational and individual effort would go in vain if there is no community-based, collaborative action.
The Kolivada fishing community in Mahim exhibited the very community collaboration that CAC aimed for, which helped the community tide the wave of the pandemic. The fishing community did not survive on just donations from the NGO; it found a way to keep itself afloat during lean months by capitalizing on an opportunity.
The mass hysteria caused by the pandemic prompted people to hoard protective masks to the point that they became a scarce commodity. With demand in place, Ujjwala Tai, an executive board member of the fishery’s women’s board known as ‘Daryawadi Mahila Sangh’, organized the resources within the community to start making masks. While starting out, Ujjwala Tai had not thought that the exercise, started primarily for the community, would be extended into a whole enterprise. “I received a mask-making tutorial video from Nalini Nayak, which I forwarded to Rajesh, one of my colleagues. Rajesh began the exercise in his own community nearby. He bought some cloth from the trader and distributed them among the women in the community. With a little training, the women were adept at making these masks at a very low cost. The N-95 masks were pretty costly, and ours was a cheaper alternative.”
However, in the face of the fear of losing their source of income, they turned the exercise into an enterprise. They started mass production of masks and the distribution of the same to large corporations and factories. Ujjwala Tai tells us that the whole exercise was funded by the community only. “We spent money out of our own pockets for buying cloth and other supplies. We’ve never asked for a loan from anyone in this regard.”
Not only did Ujjwala Tai float the mask-making idea in the community, but she also stepped up to bring in a team of doctors to conduct online consultations with people from her community with the aid of another organization. “Worli Koliwada is not a huge area, but we have a lot of people. There are families of 4 or 5 living in closed spaces, and one of the members contracting the virus meant that the whole family was doomed.” As the death toll rose, fear in Koliwada rose, and people started panicking. At that time, expert medical consultation was the only thing keeping the community from falling apart. The fight for Ujjawala Tai was not just to sustain herself and her family but also to strive to keep her community relevant. She reiterated, again and again, that this was the story of her entire community and not just herself.
The interaction with Ujjwala Tai and her idea and effort of bringing the community together to tide over these harrowing times greatly was influenced by the strategy that CAC used, especially in their relief work during the second wave of the pandemic. Together they created a community of relief providers and reaching over 15 million lives in the country.