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When COVID closed India, these women opened their hearts — and wallets

Many of the women in Sangeeta Siwan's Mumbai neighborhood lost their jobs during the pandemic, but they banded together to help each other through the lockdowns. From left to right: Kalawanti Yadav, Sageeta Wadule, Sangeeta Pandey and Ambika Kalshetty.
Ruchi Kumar
Many of the women in Sangeeta Siwan's Mumbai neighborhood lost their jobs during the pandemic, but they banded together to help each other through the lockdowns. From left to right: Kalawanti Yadav, Sageeta Wadule, Sangeeta Pandey and Ambika Kalshetty.

MUMBAI, India – The first time Sangeeta Siwan, a 45-year-old day laborer from India, learned about COVID-19 was when her employer at the packaging factory told her they would be temporarily closing business.

"Everything was shutting down ... the country was shutting down. I didn't even know that was possible," she said.

Her initial shock quickly turned into dread. With the majority of the businesses coming to a standstill, there were very few jobs to replace the one she lost. And lockdowns kept her from being able to pursue even those.

"Everything changed overnight, and within a week I couldn't even afford to feed my family. I couldn't pay rent," said Siwan, a widow who lives with her son and mother in a small house in the Subhash Nagar slums of Mumbai.

India declared lockdowns on March 25, 2020, and extended them, in varying degrees, until the end of the year. By May 2020, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), nearly 122 million Indians had lost their jobs. Of these, 91.3 million were small traders and laborers like Siwan.

Globally, the International Labour Organisation estimated that nearly 1.6 billion informal economy workerswere significantly impacted during the pandemicby April 2020, leading to a 60% decline in their earnings. In India, the informal sectors – such as household staff, shop workers and factory workers — employed over 50% of the women.

For a few days, Siwan tried to earn some money by selling vegetables, but India's stringent lockdowns — ranked by Oxford University as among of the most severe across 73 countries — meant that she couldn't easily procure goods from the wholesale markets. "I felt so trapped and hopeless," she said.

A community comes together

But help came from an unexpected place. Siwan had confided her woes to the women in her neighborhood, many of whom had worked as housemaids but had lost their jobs because of the lockdowns.

"But some of them were receiving partial salaries from their employers. One of them told her employer about my situation and he sent over some money to help me, while another neighbor who was receiving support from the local church recommended me to them and I received some basic ration supplies from them. Some others would even bring us a share of their daily meals," Siwan said.

On hearing her dilemma, Siwan's landlady waived her rent for six months and even paid for half of the electricity and water bills in that period. "As the word spread about my situation in the community, I started receiving more donations [into her digital wallet] from people I didn't even know. It was overwhelming," Siwan said, choking back tears. "We survived COVID because of the support of our community."

A recent studyby the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) looking into the giving patterns in India found similar cultural trends, even amid widespread poverty.

"What we learned from this study is that people in India are generous. About 87% of households reported giving in some form between October 2020 and September 2021," said Shaivya Verma, senior research manager at Ashoka University's CSIP.

And about one-third of those houses that didn't contribute anything reported that they simply were never approached by anyone for support, Verma added.

While the majority of the donations — about 70% — were made to religious organizations, the rest were distributed among non-religious causes, friends and family and "beggars," the study says. The highest value donations — up to Rs 10,000 [about $120] — were made to friends and family, which includes household staff like the women in Siwan's neighborhood.

The CSIP study estimates that the total market size of cash donations in India for that one year to be about Rs 23,700 crores (about $3 billion). Meanwhile, the India Philanthropy Report 2021, which assessed family donations to be about Rs 12,000 crore (about $1.5 billion) in 2020, predicts the market to grow at a rate of 13% per year through 2026.

Who's giving and why

With such figures, it isn't a surprise that "giving" makes for lucrative business in India. Anoj Viswanathan recognized the potential of the sector over a decade ago when he co-founded Milaap, a crowdfunding platform that caters to Indian audiences.

During the pandemic, Milaap saw its services utilized on a much larger scale. "Aside from the funds raised, we also witnessed a shift in the regions where these campaigns were originating. People from places like Solapur, Jalna or Guntur [all small towns and villages] were setting up campaigns for their community members in distress," Viswanathan said, adding that a significant number of campaigns were for the benefit of workers from informal and semiformal sectors who had lost their income.

The report found varying reasons that motivated people to give, ranging from family traditions and religious beliefs to simply wanting to help someone in distress. However, speaking from his experience, Viswanathan said that technological advancements have contributed to the increase in donations.

"Giving is a very impulsive behavior, it isn't often planned beforehand. So if the process gets too complicated, a potential donor will move on. These were challenges we faced earlier due to the lack of internet penetration in India, as well as complex banking systems that prevented many Indians from using them," he explained.

How technology helped

Since 2016, digital payments have become mainstream in India. There are 1.15 billion mobile phone subscribers in India. "People can now easily make payments as little as Rs 1 [12 cents] if they want to through apps like Paytm or GooglePay. It has impacted contributions with more people making donations online," he said.

The CSIP study backed this up. "Digital wallets were used much more than [other payment methods] while giving, primarily to non-religious organizations," Verma said. While the CSIP study documented 93% of households preferred to give cash, the report classified the term "cash" to include digital wallets and online payments.

Another trend Milaap observed was the increase in small contributions —donations between Rs 50 [60 cents] to Rs 200 [$2.50]. "Between March 2020 and June 2021, 23.38% of the total donations were below Rs 200. Even those who had very little to give were contributing," he said.

The CSIP shared similar findings: While middle-income households made up the largest overall value of the donations, the largest number of donations — about 52% — were made by low-income households.

"This was a time of uncertainty, no one knew how things would unfold. And the usual perception of a human tendency is that we hoard resources in times of crises. Instead, we saw an outpour of generosity from everyday individuals," Viswanathan remarked.

When Siwan realized she had received more donations than her family needed to survive, she too paid them forward. "I sent some of the cash to my sister who is also a single mother and had lost family income. And my mother and I decided to distribute the excess ration we had received to our neighbors who were also struggling during the lockdowns," she said.

"We may not have a lot but, even if it is one roti [Indian flat bread], my belief is that there is more prosperity in sharing half of it with someone who needs it. That is how humanity works," she said.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

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Ruchi Kumar