‘We are a part of the solution, not the problem’ says the tagline of Relief Riders. Relief Riders is a real story of cyclists helping the senior citizens in India with essential supplies during the lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is said that “helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for that person”. This is exactly what Relief Riders are doing. Reaching out to the citizens impacted by the coronavirus, and to those vulnerable groups who are at risk when they step-out of their homes during the curfew.
The pandemic has resulted in severe economic, mental health and physical challenges, leaving citizens in peril. Millions of Indian-global citizens suffered in the two waves of the deadly coronavirus that negatively influenced families, elderly and children in this catastrophe.
Apart from the temporary positive changes in the environment, Boom in bicycling is another unexpected feature that has emerged in the ongoing pandemic.
Evolved cities in Europe and North America reacted fast to the cycling boom earmarking funds for cycling infrastructure and to build the ecosystem in-order to sustain the surge in ridership.
Although India has seen a spurt in cycling, it has mostly gone unnoticed due to its high population and geography. The nation is still figuring out its way to roll-out adequate safe-cycling infrastructure under the Smart Cities Mission’s ‘India Cycles for Change’ Campaign in partnership with ITDP India.
Meanwhile, the cycling community in Bengaluru (plus other cities) has made a request to their respective state governments to exempt cyclists from securing permits to ride during lockdowns as well as – classify bicycle shops under ‘Necessary Services’ category and allow them to operate during the curfew.
The Relief Riders initiative is a brain child of Sathya Sankaran, Bicycle Mayor of Bengaluru. Armed with a decade of experience in advocacy space promoting non-motorized transportation and policy intervention, the urban crusader initiated the Relief Riders program in March 2020 during the first lockdown in India.
“We have been doing the cycle to work program for more than 2 years and we connected virtually to discuss how we can use bicycles effectively in this lockdown period? We concluded that bicycles have a constructive role to play in extending necessary aid to the elderly group it will also replace motor vehicle trips hence saving on carbon emissions as well. It is important to keep the aged population homebound and safe – by catering to their requirements and delivering groceries, medicines etc., using bicycles.” – Sathya Sankaran, Bicycle Mayor of Bengaluru.
The Bicycle Mayor appointed by BYCS, Amsterdam, collaborated with his ‘Cycle to Work’ ambassadors and volunteer cyclists from across the city to put up a meaningful idea of supporting the local community. Those in need of essentials such as groceries, dairy products, medicines etc., can contact the Relief Riders to receive help at door-step.
With a successful pilot-run in Bengaluru, this year, the campaign is extended to more than a dozen cities. It involves over seven hundred Relief Riders who have signed-up for the program and safely catered to the needs of over 2K citizens using an eco-friendly transport.
- 12+ cities
- 720+ volunteers
- 2000+ people served
- 4 tonnes of CO2 offset
How it works?
Retailers and shopkeepers are facing a shortage of staff. Cycle to work volunteers is filing the human-resource gap by enrolling themselves in the core team of the Relief Riders program. Each Relief Rider is restricted to a smaller number of trips to reduce exposure, maintaining adequate hygiene and precautions.
A 30-minute induction session is conducted before on-boarding a new Relief Rider. The session is done over a phone call and covers detailed information on COVID-19 safety protocols – how to handle payments, maintaining social distancing, using sanitizers, face-masks and other finer nuances involved in the transaction for a secured contactless delivery. Once the rider is added to the team, their locations are recorded in a central data system and according to the incoming request; the deliveries are assigned based on the rider’s area of origin.
Bengaluru is combining pedal power with its expertise in technology to boost COVID-19 relief efforts. The intent is to automate the entire process so that the response time is reduced and have a better control on the task.
Techies have chipped-in and customized a centralized command centre to create a real-time dashboard for ease in decision making as per the situation. Entries which were earlier made in a shared excel spreadsheet – have now moved to a new web-based platform.
Sathya explains “We have moved to a web-based new command centre for back office operations. Next, we integrated with the Telegram app and requesters can now just text a bot and register their request. The call handlers will then coordinate with the cyclists for delivery along with reminders. We have algorithms which detect the closest person that minimize unnecessary travel and exposure to virus”.
Whenever a senior citizen calls on the helpline, registered cyclists are notified. They then go out to buy the essentials. Even though the process is technology led, it retains its human touch.
“On one instance, an elderly citizen asked for medicines, and later added a request of getting apples from a particular shop and it was executed precisely to his satisfaction”, recalls Pooja Vijay, Bicycle Mayor of Jaipur who is fronting the Relief Riders Jaipur chapter.
Sandeep Sethi, from Jaipur who availed the Relief Riders service, explains “I am a teacher by profession and physically challenged. I could not go to the store due to a lockdown and read about Relief Riders in a flyer that cyclists will come and deliver essentials. The concept hit on me and I used the services twice – once to get insulin; groceries and fruits on another occasion. I could tell them to get it from a particular shop and they did it for me”.
Cycling is empowering – and its biggest positive impact in society is that it continues to provide a greater amount of social mobility to women. ‘Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester 100 years ago promoting women’s rights’ (The Guardian) – now, women cycling has become a culture.
Harshita Kaushik, a citizen of Guwahati is the lone women cyclist enrolled for the Relief Riders program in the city.
She explains “I was doing recreational cycling and when I came to know about this program I was certain that I can add value to this initiative, alongside utilizing my time constructively. I went to deliver a parcel to an old woman who happened to be of my grandmother’s age. I wondered how difficult it must be for the elderly to live a lonely life, which is why my contribution became more significant. Thankfully, my grandma is looked after by her children but not everyone in our society is lucky, just like the old-women who needed my help.”
Championing the cause in Guwahati, Arshel Akther, Bicycle Mayor adds “Harshita being a very good cyclist and the youngest member of our team, I am happy she came forward to lend her support for this noble cause. She has the right character and sure to become an inspiration for others. I am equally glad that people of Guwahati have shown trust in us and given us an opportunity to serve them”.
The situation is contrastingly different in Bengaluru with more women participants doing the rounds. Of the total registered Relief Rides in the city, as many as 17% of them are women.
“I spent this weekend volunteering for Relief Riders. It has been wonderful to see the civic community coming together to help lives. Families cook and ensure other families do not feel the strain when afflicted with COVID. Volunteers as ambulance drivers – help at cremation sites and many more handling distress calls. While we are angry, it may help in channelizing the same towards something helpful. Does not matter which side of the fence you are on, do volunteer safely”, Saraswathi Anand, General Manager at Network-18 Media in Bengaluru quoted in her social media timeline.
Besides their full time jobs, the volunteers have taken this additional responsibility and applied valuable lessons learnt in their career to handle deliveries efficiently. Corporate values such as collaboration, teamwork, goal setting, sharing the load etc. are used for problem solving.
Felix John, Bicycle Mayor of Chennai city adds “One day we got a call request for medicines which had to be delivered to somewhere 10 kilometers. Typically, a rider is assigned the shortest distance (2/3 kms) considering safety. We planned a relay wherein 3 riders got involved. One of them was a woman who participated in the relay and we could successfully deliver the medicines to the caller”.
Awareness for the Relief Riders program started on established social media platforms like facebook, whatsapp, twitter, telegram, and linked-in. It also spread via word-of-mouth publicity. After the pilot phase, soon – it was picked-up by the mainstream electronic and print media which helped the campaign reach out to masses. News channel ‘France24’ did a special feature on Relief Riders in June 2021, taking the story to the international stage.
Relief Riders have aligned themselves with the 1090 helpline number (Elders Helpline 1090 – is a joint project of the Bengaluru City Police and Nightingales Medical Trust, has been set up to tackle the problems of elder abuse in Bengaluru since 2002).
Callers can also log on to the website reliefriders.urbanmorph.com and call the contact numbers listed on the website. Or simply message on the Telegram app and the bot will do the rest.
Write to Sathya Sankaran: firstname.lastname@example.org
Speak to Sathya: +91 98804 48853
Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai