A Man with a Plan: Chennai’s Resident Social Advocate

By Karthik TM

It was no surprise when Chennai’s resident go-to social activist Karthik TM was the first on the scene during the migrant laborer crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the nation went into a lockdown to contain community spread, the impact on migrant labor, most of whom worked away from their native villages were left abandoned, unemployed and thousands of miles from their homes. Soon TV screens and newspapers were flooded with the gut-wrenching images of thousands of migrants taking to the streets in a desperate attempt to walk home. While most of the nation watched helplessly, Karthik and a group of volunteers refused to sit on the sidelines.

A theatre enthusiast at heart, Karthik is no stranger to helping his community. His active involvement in raising funds for the 2002 Gujrat earthquake relief project and the 2004 Tsunami relief project have helped his amass a huge following of empaths and crowd funders on social media. His ability to leverage his network to quickly provide financial aid as well as his connections to local authorities, NGOs and government bodies makes Karthik’s first-response effective and impactful.

In March 2020, while most of the nation was contained indoors, Karthik was on the ground, providing food and medical supplies to senior citizens who didn’t have access to them. He would drive around a 40km radius around Chennai to make sure the elderly had food on their tables. He extended his philanthropy to stray animals who would earlier be fed by locals but were now neglected and starving. In May 2020, at the height of the migrant laborer crisis, Karthik worked with local authorities to assist migrants from across the country get home. Working with the railway authorities and local NGOs, Karthik’s response team verified each traveller, made sure they had the right documentation, provided food, shelter and assistance, and sometimes even performed for them to help reduce their anxiety. Through sheer hard work and a never-say-die attitude, the team was able to provide over 11000 laborers safe passage to their hometowns.

Apart from transporting stranded laborers back home, Karthik personally ferried 25 pregnant women laborers to the hospital and his car, also called the “pregnancy mobile” by his team even witnessed a few births. When asked about the same Karthik says, “I remember during the pandemic, a lot of pregnant NE women were not given medical assistance because people thought they had COVID and even called them Chinese corona. When I remember those things is when I realize that I have actually made a difference in people’s lives.”

As things return to a new-normal, Karthik has no plans of slowing down. He is already working with families crippled by financial duress post-pandemic and is providing their children with resources to continue their education. By leveraging his social contacts, he has raised enough money to sponsor 14 children and pay for books, laptops and school fees. “I always have my eyes and antenna up for various causes in my community. People don’t realize that you don’t have to do something big to be impactful. Sometimes even carrying a packet of biscuits in your pocket and sharing that with someone who is hungry can go a long way.”