Dera’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic
At a time when the entire world is in the grip of the terrible coronavirus pandemic, and as fear and anxiety flow through the whole of humanity, it is only natural that people look for effective and compassionate leadership to provide hope and a practical course of action to steer them through the “ocean of fear and dread.”
In February 2020, in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Baba Ji cancelled the scheduled satsang programs in India, including the March satsangs at the Dera. He returned to Dera and under his guidance, Dera systematically shut down all non-essential departments and activities. By the end of March only essential services and activities remained operational.
For a time, satsang was still held at the Mand pandal, but attendees were seated one metre apart. Baba Ji sometimes came for darshan during the week, but not on the weekends as this would draw large crowds. Those living outside Dera were requested not to come to Dera and those who did come were given health checks at the gates before entering.
In mid-March, the Indian government implemented a 21-day national lockdown and stay-at-home policy. Dera gates were closed to almost everyone. Dera residents were asked not to leave Dera. Family members living in other cities were asked not to come, in an effort to control the possible spread of infections. Dependent school-age children staying in boarding schools outside of Dera could come and stay with their parents but were asked to home quarantine on arrival.
Many people do not realize that the majority of seva done in Dera is carried out by jatha sevadars, temporary sevadars who come from Punjab and other places around India for fixed periods, usually lasting from one week to one month. They are the backbone that keeps all the Dera services running. This mandatory lockdown would stop the flow of these sevadars and thus would put a tremendous strain on the Dera’s resident sevadars. So just before the lockdown took effect, jatha sevadars were asked if they could commit to staying for a month in order to do seva. This way they would not have to come and go but would stay in Dera accommodations, and their food and other necessities would be provided. Many chose to stay, which is how the Dera is still managing to provide all its necessary services.
Due to the coronavirus problem, the master took the unprecedented decision to stop the daily morning satsangs at the pandal. Since people could not enter or leave Dera, and those in Dera needed to maintain a safe distance from others, the satsang on the pandal was replaced by a telecast satsang over Dera’s internal CCTV cable TV network. Shabds are sung for 15 minutes, followed by the satsang, delivered by one of the regular Punjabi satsang kartas (speakers). So, in the comfort and safety of their own homes, Dera residents now have satsang every morning via their television.
Because of the limited number of sevadars, and the reduced size of the total sangat in Dera, certain sevas have been curtailed. Food service normally utilizes many sevadars. With the reduced sangat, some food outlets have been closed and consolidated. Dera residents are encouraged to cook at home. The bhojan bhandar is still open for those who cannot prepare their own meals. Non-essential Dera departments and activities such as book restoration, archives, BAV, and other departments were curtailed. Departments were told to run with a skeletal staff and were asked to give up sevadars that could be utilized elsewhere.
As the national lockdown took effect, news stories from all over India showed the devastating consequences the lockdown was having on many factory workers, labourers, and daily wage workers. Living hand to mouth, the lack of work meant they had no money to buy food. This also affected many villages around Dera, where many daily wage labourers reside.
Baba Ji quickly mobilized Dera sevadars to prepare meal packets for delivery to the surrounding villages. Everyone not fully occupied in their departments has been asked to help in preparing the meal packets. It is like a war effort. Under Baba Ji’s guidance, sevadars assemble every day to prepare the packed meals in shifts, starting at 3:00 AM. Before entering the hall where the meals are prepared, their temperature is taken and their hands sanitized. Strict attention is paid to the health and safety of the sevadars preparing the food, as well as the hygiene of the food itself. Those preparing the food wear caps or scarves so that that their hair is covered; they are provided with face masks and disposable gloves to ensure sanitary working conditions. They wash their hands or sanitize them frequently. Ladies are told to trim their nails short, and not to wear nail polish, henna, or rings on their fingers. The sevadars prepare three meals a day for delivery at 6:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m. Some sevadars go early in the morning to help before satsang or before reporting to their regular duties. It is an almost round-the-clock operation.
Preparing the packed meals is a two-part process. First is the cooking of the multi-grain rotis (flatbread), most of which are prepared using a mechanized system that rolls out the dough and cuts it into circles. There is also a team rolling out the rotis by hand. Every hour, 25,000 rotis can be produced. The rotis are then deep fried, and made into traditional puris. Sevadars prepare lemon pickle to serve with the puris. Alternatively, meals with rice will be prepared. Each food packet provides a substantial, nutritious meal.
Then comes the packing. Seated on low stools in long rows at stainless-steel tables, sevadars form a makeshift assembly line. One team takes the plastic bags, opens them, and folds back their tops for rapid and easy access by the food packers. Three puris and lemon pickle are put into each bag. The completed bags are then given to other sevadars who seal them.
Even the schoolchildren from Pathseekers School are involved. Some help prepare the rotis with great focus and single-mindedness. Others help pack the meals into cartons for delivery to the villages. It is wonderful to see these strong young teenagers, who would otherwise be engaged in sports or other activities, working so assiduously in the master’s work. After the meals are packed into the cartons, they are brought by truck to the Dera gates. To maintain an effective quarantine within Dera, representatives from the villages pick up the food at the gate, placing it into their own vehicles for distribution back in their villages.
Baba Ji has been visiting the seva area every day, touring the entire facility at Dera as well as facilities in other areas of Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, and Haryana, to see that the work is going on properly and to give darshan to the sevadars. The sevadars anticipate his visits with great enthusiasm, spurred on to continue their work even more happily in the supercharged atmosphere. In private, Baba Ji expressed his great pleasure with the unbounded generosity, love, and joy of the sevadars in helping their fellow brothers and sisters. He said:
I haven’t seen so much love of the sevadars – they are so happy in doing the seva and being part of the large chain in helping humanity. There is no department where we are lacking in volunteers. Everybody is coming on their own – housewives, teachers, engineers – everybody has joined in to prepare packed lunches to be sent outside.
How does Dera have enough food for this effort, at a time when transportation and deliveries have been curtailed throughout India? Baba Ji said that Dera always has enough stock for two of the 3-week satsang periods. Because the February and March satsangs at Dera were cancelled, there is sufficient food. Currently more than 100,000 packed meals are being prepared daily.
In India, millions of people travel from their homes to the cities where work is available. Now, with the almost-complete national lockdown, factories and businesses are closed. Trains and buses have been cancelled, and the situation throughout India has become dire. India’s vast migrant labour force is being forced to leave the cities and return to their homes on foot. They have little or no money and are unable to get food, medicine, or water for their journey. There are reports and news videos of countless numbers of people walking hundreds of miles to reach their distant homes.
Baba Ji has directed sevadars at satsang centres throughout India to prepare packed meals and offer shelter for these migrant workers making the journey home on foot. As of March 31, in the state of Haryana alone, more than 16,000 migrant labourers have been lodged and fed at Radha Soami Satsang facilities. In Yamunanagar, a large city in Haryana, in coordination with local police and administrative officials, people are being brought by bus to the satsang centres, where they will stay for two weeks until furthers orders are received from the government. People arriving at these locations are being examined by a team of doctors.
A video from a Delhi television news station showed the large operation of langar sevadars at the Chattarpur Centre preparing packed meals for these migrant labourers. They are given a substantial meal which may consist of rice, puri, pickle, potatoes, vegetables, or chickpea curry. The video news reporter commented on the hygiene of the kitchen, the frequent cleaning, and the fact that the sevadars were wearing masks.
Baba Ji has authorized that 8 crore rupees (approx. US $1 million) be sent to the States’ Chief Minister’s Relief Funds as well as to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. So far, two crore rupees have been given to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and one crore rupees each has been given to the Chief Minister Relief Funds of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan. The same amount of one crore was given to the Lieutenant Governor of Jammu & Kashmir.
RSSB facilities all over India have been offered to local governments to help with their efforts and to prepare meals. As of now, food distribution is going on regularly in over 50 centres in many districts of Punjab and Haryana, as well as Uttarkhand, Jammu & Kashmir, and other states. If need be, Baba Ji said, some centres that have large enough sheds could create isolation wards. In such instances, the patients would also be cared for and fed. As of 31 March 2020, approximately 560,000 food packets in total are being served daily by satsang centres all over the country. In a televised interview on March 31 with Prime Minister Modi, Baba Ji offered the full support of Radha Soami Satsang Beas for any and all needs of the Indian populace, including shelter and food.
Baba Ji has given the Dera’s residents and satsangis throughout India a way to channel their love for the master into practical help for their brothers and sisters undergoing this difficult period. Through his love, compassion, and practical guidance, the master can transform a dire situation into a transformative experience of love, gratitude, and personal fulfillment. As Hazur Maharaj Ji once said:
“The greatest reward in seva is the contentment and happiness that you feel within, that you get an opportunity to serve someone.”