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Swati Sanyal Tarafdar | Updated on April 17, 2020

Lend a hand: Volunteers hand out cooked meals and dry rations to stranded migrant workers   -  SHIVKUMARPUSHPAKAR / THE HINDU

Citizen-led initiatives are helping the unemployed and hungry tide over the nationwide lockdown, reinforcing the power of small groups of committed individuals

Bengaluru-based Anoopa Anand knew she had to do something when she saw a family of out-of-work construction workers trying to light a fire with dry leaves and cook a meal for themselves. She called an old associate, Ashwin Sameeran, and asked if they could help workers with no access to food. A regular patron, who supported Anand when she ran a rescue facility for dogs, pitched in with a donation. And Anand, with Sameeran, the founding trustee of animal care outfit Enablers United, and his brother Chetan Mukundan, started reaching out to others.

“We thought we’d provide meals to labourers in our area in Akshayanagar,” Anand says. But, soon, following calls from across Bengaluru, the team began providing cooked meals and dry rations to people in different parts of the city.

On March 31, they fed 100 people and 60 dogs. By April 15, they were preparing food for 23,000 people and 7,000 community dogs. The trio has partnered with business house Atria Foundation for cooked meals and with Bozo Wags Veterinary Clinic in Akshayanagar for dog food.

Across the country, people are working in groups or with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to feed those who have been left without work and money in the nationwide lockdown put into effect by the government to stop the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

Old schoolmates have come together to feed scores of people every day in Bagdogra. Former pharmaceutical professional Sabitabrata Pal, a resident of Siliguri, West Bengal, says that he and his old batch-mates from the Siliguri Boys’ High School started collecting supplies after the lockdown.

“We were wondering how to distribute them,” says Pal. That was when one of the old students, who works with the Railway Protection Force (RPF), mentioned that the tea estate workers in Bagdogra were facing a food crisis.

The group contacted the RPF in Bagdogra and offered to feed the 400 tribal tea estate workers every day of the lockdown. “We procure the provisions and store them in the RPF campus. Each day, some workers reach the campus and cook the food. Then, at a designated time, the tea workers come with their utensils, queue up following social distancing rules in pre-drawn circles, and take the cooked food back home,” Pal explains. “We try to include protein and vegetables in dishes such as dal, and curries made with soya nuggets.”

Meanwhile, the police in Kolkata have been busy, too. With support from various civic groups, they have been distributing fruits and dry food items among daily wage earners living in Kolkata slums.

Among the many lending a helping hand to workers in Mumbai is architect Shweta Wagh. She received a frantic call from fisherfolk she knew in Koliwada within days of the lockdown. She got in touch with Bilal Khan, a social activist working in the area, and started mobilising people and funds.

Wagh reached out to like-minded people for help, and grocery shops and retailers for supplies. “It was very difficult to channel food as the borders were closed and supplies were hit,” she says.

Khan worked on the ground with volunteers, going from house to house and distributing dry rations — rice, dal, atta, oil, spices, tea — as well as soaps, sanitisers and sanitary napkins across communities in Koliwada. The team is now considering delivering cooked food to optimise the use of available supply. “But for how long can donations feed people,” Khan wonders.

Jones Manikonda asks the same question. She has been carrying rice, dal, cooking oil, spices, and milk packets to slums around Vijayawada for the past three weeks. She spent her own money, asked friends and family for help, and finally collaborated with her old employer, the NGO Dalith Bahujan Resource Centre (DBRC), Andhra Pradesh. The DBRC, which works for the uplift of waste pickers and sanitation workers, has been distributing cooked meals to families living in the solid waste dumping grounds, and distributing dry rations elsewhere.

In Delhi, the Allied Integrated Society, an NGO working on nutrition, sanitation and skill development programmes, is now focussed on providing food for migrant workers and daily wage earners. A team of 35 chefs and assistants has been preparing around 98,000 meals every day for people across Delhi. It is also collaborating with Del Monte and Subway for juices and sandwiches, says Deepane Singhal, the AIS executive member helming the present operations.

Volunteers associated with the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) are reaching out to migrant workers from north India in Mumbai, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. “Since our focus is on upholding the national right to food and health, we have been trying to give cash (₹2,000-3,000) through digital wallets to help the families of migrant labourers stuck in remote corners of the country procure necessities. Our volunteers are connecting those in cities with the nearest voluntary group or government support system delivering food and essentials,” says SWAN member Rajendran Narayanan.

Anand is worried about the future. “Lakhs of migrants and displaced labourers are stranded with no work, no food, and no support through governmental channels. As citizens, we didn’t think it was right to sit back and watch,” she says.

The group is running out of money. But as long as money trickles in, there will be a hot meal for a family in need.

The author is a freelance journalist

Published on April 17, 2020

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