No cause too small for Covid2019 warrior Chhitra Subramaniam

Subramaniam is co-founder of Pad Squad, & helps fund community kitchens that feed thousands daily

MUMBAI: At the peak of the Covid2019 pandemic, actor Sonu Sood was hailed as a messiah by media and public alike, with good reason. Where the government was getting panned for its handling of the crisis and the distress of migrant workers, Sood was single-handedly helping stranded labourers, students and health workers, often out of his own pocket.

While Sood was in the spotlight for his acts of altruism, there were others like him – also from the entertainment industry – working in the shadows. One such who went beyond the call of duty to serve others is Chhitra Subramaniam.

As a creative producer, content development and production executive whose career spans cinema, television and advertising, Chhitra Subramaniam dons many hats. She has worked in Ram Gopal Varma’s Factory, Percept Picture Company, Viacom18, Turner International & Wiz Films and is now the senior vice president at Kross Pictures (a South Korean production company). But when the Covid2019 pandemic struck like a bolt from the blue, she took time out from her cushy job and became involved in relief efforts.

In the past months, Subramaniam has devoted her time and energy to different humanitarian endeavours: from alleviating hunger, giving over 3,000 ration kits, medicines and sanitary pads to the less privileged, helping schools and supporting community kitchens, to providing vanity vans for women cops. The film producer started by providing vanity vans to the Mumbai police, and even helped deliver a woman’s baby!

Recognising Subramaniam’s selfless service during the crisis, "The Better India" and ATE Chandra Foundation awarded her the Covid2019 Soldier Award. Looking back on her experience, Subramaniam said she believes that once you start any initiative with a pure intent, other people come forward to help.

When the nationwide lockdown was announced, Film Data Management expert and Subramaniam’s close friend Neil Sadwelkar had posted on Facebook about ways in which the film fraternity can help frontline caregivers. Sadwelkar needed someone who could take this initiative forward. Jay Dantara, a young editor put a whatsapp group called Film Makers for Front Line Care, and a few likeminded people joined it. At that point, Subramaniam took charge and spearheaded the initiative along with Gaurav Bose and others. She contacted Ketan Rawal, one of the top owners of vanity vans in Mumbai. He contributed 16 vanity vans for free and these were stationed near Nagpada junction, Sion’s LBS Marg, Bandra’s BW Sealink Toll Plaza, Kherwadi Gosiya Masjid and Dahisar Check Naka, among others.

Read more about Chhitra Subramaniam 

The Vans were given free by Ketan Rawal but entire maintenance cost, remuneration of attendants and drivers was undertaken by Producers Guild of India (PGI) and Project Mumbai was the NGO partner. 
While Subramaniam ran the whole operation and collected funds from the Producer's Guild, Rawal provided the drivers and attendants , who were paid more than their regular wages. This ensured employment of 34 daily wage workers from the film industry when there were no jobs to be had. The vanity vans ran for two months till 15 June 2020.

“We wanted to help the city police. Especially women personnel, who were working long shifts and didn’t even have access to toilets because everything was shut down. From there on, I wanted to do more and help as many people as I could,” said Subramaniam.

After that, she started approaching people on her own through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. She jokingly said that while people stalk celebrities on social media, she was stalking Covid2019 warriors. Describing how the industry came together in aid of those struggling to make ends meet, Subramaniam added: “Devashish Makhija, writer director of acclaimed films Ajji and Bhosale, put together a Facebook group and started adding various people who were doing relief work. So, we became like a tribe of relief workers and we started helping and supporting each other in different relief work.”

She has since been helping raise funds for five community kitchens that were feeding 10,000 people a day, and continued to distribute rations to those less fortunate, for whom the consequences of this pandemic have been brutal beyond belief. Then, she scaled up this work to provide medical care, food and any other services to those in need by being part of the helpline ‘Need Help, Can Help' set up by Raj Mohan.

A Dehradun resident, Mohan has already planted 2.5 million trees across India. At the outset of the pandemic, he came up with the ‘Need Help, Can Help’ initiative and started a helpline. But he required volunteers who could manage the helpline and work on ground zero level, so he asked for help on Facebook. Subramaniam was the first to respond, and with the help of a few writer friends and people from the film industry, she managed to put together a team of volunteers. They ran this helpline for three months. Through this helpline, Subramaniam and her team delivered rations and medicines all over the city.

Pad Squad was co-founded by Chhitra Subramaniam (Film Producer) Taranjit Kaur (Actor,Poet) Devashish Makhija (Film Director), Surya Balakrishnan (Advertising Film Director), Monica Raheja (Producer), Niiya Nia (Actor & activist), Gillian Pinto (Actor), Shillpi A Singh ( Writer, Journalist, Humanitarian), Mayuri Joshi Dhavale (Entrepreneur) Mentored by Bilal Khan (Activist Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan), Lara Jessani (Human Rights Advocate).

The movement has now grown to include over 54 individuals called ‘Padsquadders’ from over 26 cities –they distribute pads to marginalized communities across cities including Mumbai, Pune, Ranchi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Delhi, Ghaziabad, Kalimpong and Lucknow.

Explaining how Pad Squad came to be, she said: “I had distributed sanitary napkins in the month of May to women in Nalasopara and Andheri’s Yaari Road. Then Taranjit Kaur started collaborating with my ration work and she suggested that we give sanitary pads, because when people don’t have enough to eat, how will women buy the most basic essential, sanitary pad. Bilal Khan, who has been doing social service for the past seven years and works very closely with people in bastis, advised that we distribute the sanitary napkins in the same basti for three to four months. This has set the philosophy for Pad Squad. Initially, we invested our own money and then slowly we started receiving funds.”

Posted by Chhitra Subramaniam on Wednesday, 19 August 2020

According to her, a lot of people are working on an individual and group level under this initiative. It is a people’s movement comprising members of the film fraternity that includes writers, actors, and filmmakers. So far, Pad Squadders have distributed more than four lakh sanitary napkins.Subramaniam didn’t stop there. She supported community kitchens being run by Bilal Khan (Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan), Lara Jessani (Human Rights lawyer) and Anil Hebbar (Helping Hand Charitable Trust) that fed 10,000 people every day till 31 August.

She started collecting funds in mid-May, helped raise around Rs 80 lakh for the community kitchen, and also recruited new people to the cause – like Gangs of Wasseypur and Masaan producer Guneet Monga.

“Monga started a Ketto fund for the community kitchens and raised over Rs 30 lakhs. Taraa Varmaa Sengupta of ‘Feed My City’ donated a huge amount. Ujwal Thakkar who is my Mentor, and Venkat Krishnan of Living My Promise, both incredible human beings and doyens in the Social and Development sector ,have been huge backbones and support to the work I do. And I keep approaching people and keep raising funds for the community kitchens. Now, 3,500 are being fed every day,” the tenacious lady said. 

Subramaniam, with help from Anil Hebbar, is helping set up another community kitchen in Bhandup for the less privileged there.

Subramaniam is also a stakeholder and team member with the livelihood project called Shramik Sammaan, started by Khan, Jessani, and Hebber, which aims to create employment opportunities for migrants who returned home. Based on Gandhi’s Gram economic principles, Shramik Samman has launched several projects to generate paying work for the migrants. Subramaniam has managed to get Bollywood actor Manoj Bajpayee onboard to promote this initiative. She added that five projects are already in operation since August and there are 64 more in the pipeline.

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