Meet the IIM women's group helping Sonu Sood transport 1,000+ migrants, supporting 199 families

The IIM Women for Social Action group, which consists of close to 200 alumni from IIMs have pooled in their money and resources to help the most vulnerable sections of the society.

It is hard to catch Kanika Goyal, an IIM Kozhikode alumna, to talk with HerStory. It is not that she is averse to having a conversation; her days and nights are busy supporting a group of IIM women alumni in coordinating relief work for migrants and the underprivileged over the last two-and-half months, since the country announced a lockdown following the spread of coronavirus. 

When I finally manage to get her to talk, Kanika tells me she is doing it with her laptop in front of her, with numerous excel sheets open, and I can hear WhatsApp pings going on intermittently. 

The lockdown has caused untold distress in low-income families, especially migrant labourers and daily wage earners in metros who suddenly found themselves without jobs and money to even feed themselves. 

A WhatsApp group in Mumbai comprising women alumni from the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) across the country decided to step up and do their bit in helping the most vulnerable and adversely affected sections of the society during this unprecedented time. 

The group, now known as IIM Women for Social Action group has 176 women from several cities in India and abroad who has helped transport over 1,000 migrants to their homes, supported 199 families with food and financial aid, distributed over 25,000 masks to those in need and support a community kitchen initiative in Asia’s largest slum in Dharavi, Mumbai. 

Migrant labourers upon their return to their homes or quarantine facilities as directed by the states.

How it began

When the nationwide lockdown was imposed in mid-March, Deepa Krishnan, an alumna of IIM Calcutta and founder of Magic Tours that provides employment opportunity to people from low-income backgrounds by training them as tour guides, learnt of a bunch of  workers in Dharavi who had lost their contract employment and had no means to even feed themselves. 

These men had migrated from Bihar to work in small businesses in Dharavi and lived in small 10X10 kholis. They used to eat at nearby food stalls, but as the lockdown came into place, these shut shops too. 

Overnight, they were not only forced to huddle up in their tiny, tin-roofed kholis that were heating up like a furnace, but had no means to buy or cook food. 

Deepa was concerned and reached out to the existing WhatsApp group of IIM alumni residing in Mumbai to enquire about any community kitchen initiatives that could help these people who were in dire need of help. 

It was the start of the lockdown and not many social initiatives were in place, to help these men and boys in Dharavi. Deepa was determined to help and found a cook who agreed to provide two simple meals a day to the 10 boys and men. 

Within minutes of Deepa announcing the initiative, the group was flooded with members committing money for the next 30 days to fund the community kitchen. The overwhelming response led to a waitlist of donors.

“It really came from a passion to do something, wanting to give back in this time of COVID-19 where there is so much insecurity, loss of livelihood and income. Everybody can see that the daily wage workers and migrant workers are really struggling and a lot of them are construction workers, drivers, labourers, house workers, etc. who got paid at least for the first two months of the lockdown and  then that too stopped. Some were running their own small businesses, ran out of savings also and were left helpless,” says Kanika. 

Since its beginning on March 29, the community kitchen initiative has served over 2,500 meals to people in Dharavi with donations from the IIM women alone. 

The group also partnered with Abhyudaya Community Initiatives, StoneSoup, Souravi Enterprises (Dwij) to source masks and help generate livelihood opportunities, especially for women. Group members sponsored nearly 27,000 masks, which were distributed by volunteers in disadvantaged areas. 

Volunteer Vidya distributing masks in Joseph Patalwadi area in Mumbai.

Helping migrants get back home

Deepa Krishnan also heads an NGO, SPJIMR-Abhyudaya, which provides education to children in the slums of Andheri. After the announcement of the lockdown, the NGO made calls to check up on the families of these children and understood that it was difficult for them to make ends meet with loss of jobs for many of the parents. 

The identified families were affected in several ways - a father who sold combs on trains was having a tough time, a fruit seller was out of business, a domestic help’s children had lost out on mid-day meals at school and her meals at work - and many more stories of trials and tribulations came to light. 

Around 200 families needed immediate financial support and the IIM women rose to the occasion. Fifty IIM women, who had now joined the group from other cities and abroad, adopted three to five families and pledged to directly transfer Rs 1,000 to for the next three months to keep them afloat during difficult times. 

“However, there is a point till which you can support financially and even for the people to accept charity as they are also self-respecting individuals,” says Kanika. She adds, “With the increasing fear of COVID-19, migrant labourers wanted to go back home to their families. Others were forced to go home because they were unable to pay rent. However, the Shramik trains were not enough.”

The group jumped into action once again as they saw horrific visuals of migrant labourers walking home from Delhi with young children and their belongings. The migrants in Mumbai were also eager to go home as there was no end in sight to the lockdown and revival of economic opportunities in the city. 

News reports of actor and producer Sonu Sood beginning his efforts to secure inter-state travel permissions and sending the first batch of migrants from Mumbai to Karnataka reached members of the group. 

IIM Indore alumna Ashu Tomar, along with Manimala Hazarika and Sarmila Pande from IIM Calcutta seized the opportunity to help the migrants and cold-called Sonu Sood and offered help. Sonu welcomed the gesture, and within days the group had a core 10-member team managing all initiatives and set up a fundraising page on Milaap. The goal was to raise Rs 50 lakh, but the group ended up raising almost Rs 59 lakh in under two weeks. Forty lakh was raised in just the first five days as the alumni began pushing the campaign to their circles in India and abroad. 

IIM alumna and Sonu Sood on ground helping the migrants reach home safely.

The 10-member core team was supported by 15 more volunteers who took up the mammoth task of data entry and permission for travel. Supporting Sonu Sood and his team’s efforts, the volunteers are spending 24 hours working in 5-hour shifts since May 19, from various cities including London and New York to meticulously document every detail into excel sheets. 

The women brought in their corporate and professional skills to help identify the migrants who sent requests through various channels - the call centre, emails, text messages - and collecting their information to seek approvals for their travel. 

Kanika Goyal who provided help with arranging buses and getting permissions, says that every detail of the migrants - their name, age, medical checks, aadhaar numbers, etc - had to be documented exactly in the manner required by the police to help get approvals from them and for travel permissions from states. 

The work required hours of data entry and processing from all these channels that were being flooded with requests. From the point of boarding to reaching home safely, volunteers ensured all processes worked like clockwork. 

Sonu Sood appreciated their efforts and said, “The agility with which the IIM women team has supported the cause of the migrants and also provided volunteer assistance has helped our on-ground efforts tremendously.”

Their volunteering efforts helped transport over 1000 migrants through 25 buses to 4 states and 11 cities. One fitting moment for the group was that the stranded migrants who were part of the community kitchen initiative in Dharavi were onboard one of the first buses that left for Bihar.

Rebuilding lives and livelihoods

With most of their most of the initiatives in their last phase, the group is now formalising itself under the name ‘IIM Women for Social Action’ to look at new initiatives that will be required in the next six months. With reverse migration to villages, it is also focusing on four to six core initiatives to help migrants adjust to the rural economy, find rightful employment, restore livelihoods and work in areas of women’s empowerment and health and sanitation. 

During the months of the lockdown, the women also donated close to four lakh rupees to help construct rainwater harvesting structures and conservation of natural resources in villages of Aptale, Chotyachiwadi and Faralepada. 

The core team for migrant transportation project includes Ashu Tomar, Alka Puri, Alka Tiwari, Arti Gupta, Himadri Gangwar, Manimala Hazarika, Moomal Mehta, Sarmila Pande, Kanika Goyal and Suchitra Laxman who worked days and nights over Zoom calls, several WhatsApp groups and messages and emails to ensure that the initiative did not face much hurdles or challenges. 

The 10-member core group of IIM alumni on a zoom call discussing the relief measures and efforts.

She says, “It is very hectic, but also gratifying and satisfying to feel that you are able to make a difference in the lives of people rather than watching from the sidelines. The help not just came through money but by bringing the collective experience of 10 women and hundreds of others to make a difference on the ground as well.” 
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan


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