Bengaluru: In early December, when the floods in Tamil Nadu were at their peak, the Kumbh River broke its banks. The 6,000-odd people whose homes had been washed away arrived on Harrington Road, where the Residents’ Association, like so many others in Chennai, swung into action providing food and shelter to the flood victims. Nearly 10,000 meals were being cooked in their own kitchens every day. Supplies were running short, while prices of staple foods, candles and oil went through the roof. One Sunday morning at about 11, Ashok Fernandes, a prominent Bengalurean, received a distress call from his cousin, Cheryl Gonsalves, asking for help.
That's how hundreds of Bengalureans, all part of Ashok’s vast network, entered the picture. Ashok and Simon Paul, a member of the All People’s Church, made three trips to Chennai in the course of a week, ferrying nearly 35 tonnes of materials worth over a crore in all. In about twelve hours, they had arranged for 3,000 double blankets, 2,000 LED torches, 40,000 candles, 25,000 matchboxes, 500 kilos of rice, 200 kilos each of dal and oil and 2,000 kilos of mosquito repellents.
"By the time we got that call, there were no vegetables available in Chennai. Even a single candle cost as much as Rs 75," said Fernandes. Accompanying the trucks carrying the materials was essential, relief vehicles were being waylaid en route to Chennai. Most of their supplies were being sent to Cuddalore and Kancheepuram, where very little relief work was taking place.
The garage at Fernandes' house in Bengaluru turned into a temporary godown to stock supplies pouring in from across the city. Ashok’s wife, Susan, who runs a fashion garment store, got together with her friends, Monica and Rajesh Rajaram, to create a Whatsapp group and keep track of the relief supplies that came pouring in. “We couldn’t have pulled this off without their support,” said Ashok, pulling out a notebook that contains a detailed inventory of everything that has been received.
Simon managed to raise Rs 1 lakh through his parish, which was used mainly to buy medicines. Ashok put in Rs 2 lakh for the same purpose, while friends and supporters rushed to medical stores across Bengaluru to pick up supplies. Thomas Chandy, the owner of Hosmat, pitched in with six large boxes, including paediatric medicines. “Cheryl and her team had three doctors volunteering their services and they sent us lists of what they needed,” Ashok explained.
By the time the second trip rolled around, animal carcasses surfaced as the water began to recede, resulting in a severe hygiene problem. "On the third trip, we sent about one-and-a-half tonnes of bleaching powder to sanitise the corpses. Diarrhoea, dysentry and influenza were also rampant." Nothing was given randomly, added Simon. "Every situation was assessed carefully. We told our friends what was needed and materials were sent accordingly, so nothing was wasted." Ashok and Madhuri Genomal, the owners of Jockey India, sent 8,000 pairs of underwear. "The people in Chennai had no clothes, we had to take things like towels," said Ashok.
"Those who lost their homes still haven't been provided housing," said Cheryl Gonsalves, who spoke to DC over the phone. "They have returned to the same place, where they are living in absolute filth." The next phase of the operation involves identifying those who need help. "We're putting together starter packs, or care packages, with all the materials we have left," she said.
The team is on a little hiatus now, as Cheryl, her brother-in-law Nidhi, a social activist, and members of the Salesian Church which has its network in Cuddalore and Kancheepuram, have to identify places that need rehabilitation. “We received a thousand bars of soap and clothes this morning,” said Ashok. “All we’re waiting for is the next phone call!”
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