Alok Singh leads Operations at Cityflo. Here, he takes us through what Cityflo has been up to, during the pandemic.
On 23rd March, the country closed its doors to a normal social life. I welcomed it. It was nice not to have to step out every day. For me and those around me, life didn't change much. But for our drivers, nothing would be the same anymore.
A typical driver is a man of modest means. Many Cityflo drivers are migrants from other states, and much of their salary is sent back to their families. When Cityflo operations stopped and the bus owners (who we work with) couldn't pay them their salaries, the catastrophes which most of us viewed from the comfort of our homes were becoming their reality. Meanwhile, the rains that some had hoped ‘would wash the virus away’ were about to add to their woes.
The Madden Julian oscillation is the largest trigger of irregular weather patterns for the Indian subcontinent. In the month of July it caused a downpour that fed the angry Brahmaputra’s rage. It burst open at its seams flooding, and destroying lives and livelihoods in Assam. Within the millions who were affected, some of them were Cityflo drivers. Their homes were destroyed. Some driver’s children were hospitalized as they fell sick. Another one, engaged to be married, had his nuptials hanging in the balance. But the hammer fell the heaviest when we heard that one of our drivers, a father to two kids, had passed away in a road accident.
Sitting at home, I realized how diverse the meaning of the word ‘lockdown’ is. For most of us, it is an inconvenience of varying degrees. But for so many, many others, it was a struggle for survival, a battle for their lives.
Our drivers discuss their problems, their finances and even their families freely with us. Our drivers might not be on our payroll, but we are very close. They are an extension of our Operations team.
When the lockdown was announced, we knew we needed to act swiftly. Our team rallied and within a fortnight, we recognized every driver's situation, planned a driver relief program and set up a driver helpline number for emergency support. Shweta from our team even started a podcast for them, to increase awareness around safety practices during this time, and to keep them entertained. You can listen to one of the episodes here.
Times were tough, but it was heartening to see the focus and energy of the team as they took the fight to the crisis.
Driver Relief Program
On April 10, we launched a Driver Relief program. Phase I involved allocating money to provide supplies for their families, and in certain cases, emergency support. We issued medical insurance (for COVID-19) for all our drivers. And slowly as the realization of how interconnected we all are in this crisis began to grow, the most special set of allies came forward and made us so much stronger. You guys.
The everyday commuters of Cityflo embraced the Cityflo drivers as their own. We received several messages from our customers to offer help and donations towards the program. This encouraged us to start a small fundraiser for customers with the help of Akshayashakti Foundation and thanks to their prompt and generous contributions, we hit our goal of Rs.5L within 14 hours.
With the funds in place, we were able to help all of the drivers and their families in a timely way. Sibu, one of our most adored drivers, also got married during this time. But while things were looking up, the options to deliver groceries and other supplies during the pandemic were sparse and insufficient. So we took matters, which in this case were big bags full of groceries, into our own hands.
It was both, scary and exciting, to step out of the house and make grocery packets outside a local supermarket during a pandemic in which videos of people getting thrashed for much less, were going viral. It took us all night to make them, but we managed to deliver them to each of their homes. The entire family of one of our drivers, Uday, stepped out to thank us.
Few moments in life have made me feel more humble. Fewer still have made me feel so proud.
As the lockdown eased, some drivers left for their hometowns to be with their families. Most, chose to stay. Rahul, a popular driver, said, “Sir, yahi hoon, aap jab bhi Cityflo start karo, mai ready hoon”. (Translation: “Sir, I'm right here. Whenever Cityflo resumes, I'll be ready.”). He even found a part time job to deliver vegetables during this period.
Thanks to two NGOs - Project Mumbai and Yuva Foundation - we were able reach drivers in areas we couldn't access earlier. With Phase II of our program underway all of our drivers were receiving a monthly care package comprising grocery and a cash transfer.
Healing, coming back stronger
We re-started our services on 15th June after seeking permissions from local authorities. It was a huge moment for the team. The sheer joy of revving their bus engines after a long hiatus, brought a big smile to our drivers. Re-starting our service with a new app, new systems and safety processes felt like we were launching Cityflo for the very first time.
The execution was flawless.
As I write this, plans for the launch of Phase III of our Driver Relief Program are already underway. This time the intention is to help them grow, personally as well as professionally.
But more on that later.