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Community kitchens in India are feeding the hungry during the pandemic

Modi's government programs are inadequate, so communities and cooks are filling a major gap

by Sharanya Deepak

Women prepare food in community kitchen in Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
Women prepare food in community kitchen in Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
"Family Rice" made by Tamil cooks in Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
"Family Rice" made by Tamil cooks in Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
Community Volunteers in Wadala, Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
Community Volunteers in Wadala, Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
Dal tadka (lentils curry) at kitchen in Wadala, Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
Dal tadka (lentils curry) at kitchen in Wadala, Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
Packets of wheat stored for community kitchens in Delhi. Photo: Bhavreen Kandhari
Packets of wheat stored for community kitchens in Delhi. Photo: Bhavreen Kandhari
Transporting rice in Pul Mithai, New Delhi. Subodh Bind
Transporting rice in Pul Mithai, New Delhi. Subodh Bind
A young girl eats in Wadala, Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai
A young girl eats in Wadala, Mumbai. Photo: Community volunteers in the bastis of Mumbai

On a hot summer day in Pul Mithai, a neighborhood in Old Delhi, Subodh Bind says he is taking a 24-hour break to fix his back, which has been giving him urgent spasms and pains. Bind has been cooking for 2 months straight for more than 2000 people, lifting heavy pots where he boils 30 kilograms of rice 6 times a day. 

“I would wake up at six and get to work, I had the boys of the neighborhood help me,” he says. “First, we would soak and boil the rice starting early morning around 4:30 am – then the dal (lentils), and lastly, the vegetables – whatever I can find”. Bind feeds those that live around him and within a 6-kilometer radius. “There are children here that don’t get milk, entire families that hadn’t eaten for days when the lockdown began,” he says. 

India has had more than 150,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, but the numbers, experts say, are much higher. Community kitchens like Bind’s have been emerging in India since the lockdown starting March 24th following the Covid-19 outbreak. The lockdown was announced suddenly and with erratic precursor measures by the BJP Government of India, led by Narendra Modi. 

Most of India’s working classes, like those in Pul Mithai, are daily wage earners and “migrant workers” – citizens who work in larger metropolises like Delhi but belong to rural villages and smaller towns in India. Those in Pul Mithai belong to Munger district, in the eastern state of Bihar. Most migrant workers in India are undocumented, work without contracts where they are paid a minimum daily wage, and have few labour protections. These are some of the people that have been affected worst by the nation-wide lockdown. 

Millions have been stranded with no income, or food, away from home. A large exodus of migrant workers has also been taking place, with thousands walking home. As of May 19th, 134 migrants had died on their way home, and many others face a brutalizing hunger. Apart from some states like Kerala, whose Communist government’s welfare programs have protected and fed their citizens, state action has been insufficient or completely absent. It is citizen led initiatives that have been keeping people alive and fed.  

These community kitchens follow several models: some cook in large kitchens and deliver across cities, others set up makeshift ones within populated neighborhoods, engaging community volunteers. These efforts are funded entirely by citizens through crowd-funding campaigns, and the initiatives are collaborations between restaurant owners, activists, NGOs, and Indians from all backgrounds. 

In March, the PM CARES Fund (Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund) was started by the Government of India, but there has still been no transparency of where and how this money is being spent. 

“Have you seen the food the government is providing?” asks Bhavreen Kandhari, who has partnered with restaurants to send food to people in need. “It is tasteless, almost always stale – I ordered the food twice to my own home, there were worms in the rice” she says. “This is not about basic sustenance but also dignity” she adds. “The state is not giving people that.” 

Kandhari has partnered with restaurants and hotels to deliver cooked meals to more than 20,000 people a day. She started off with supplying to the victims of anti-Muslim pogroms that took place in New Delhi in February. “The riot victims, who were displaced from their homes, became stranded when the lockdown began”  she says. 

For the last two months, Kandhari and her allies have been supplying rajma chawal (kidney beans and rice), kadhi chawal (a yoghurt dumpling curry with rice), and whenever she can, sweets, and milk. “Because we make the food in ghee (clarified butter), some of the children of the bastis have started referring it to ‘makkhan ka khana’ or ‘buttered food’” says Kandhari. Three days ago, her neighbor packed 500 kilograms of jaggery, or unrefined sugar, into tiny parcels as a symbol of solidarity with the food packets she was sending out. She tells of chefs that have been working overtime without pay. “But let’s face it – this is not a solution. No one should have to walk home for food. This is a failure, on the state’s part, and ours, everyday.”

Like Kandhari and Bind, citizens in Mumbai have also been on their toes, feeding the city’s dauntingly large population. Mumbai, in the south-western coastal state of Maharashtra, is denser and more packed than Delhi, and as of 20th May, 2020, has a large number of Covid-19 cases at more than 20,000. But the main problem lies with Mumbai’s constitution; the city is home to 21 million people, most of whom live in slums, and spaces where social distancing is not possible.

“60 percent of Mumbai is slums, and 85 percent of slum-dwellers are informal sector workers” says Lara Jesani, a lawyer and community kitchen activist in Mumbai. “When the lockdown started on March 16th, we were feeding many 2000 people, but soon the numbers of people in need soared.” she says. Jesani, along with another activist, Bilal Khan and with help from many organizations, runs kitchens in several neighborhoods of Mumbai. “We decided to open community kitchens, instead, in several neighborhoods where locals could cook food - and we would provide ingredients, vehicles, and cooking fuel.” she says. “We started in the places which we knew, where we knew that we could mobilize volunteers, and the food could get into the smaller alleys, and reach all the households”. 

In the kitchens supervised by Jesani and others, fresh food is cooked, so it is hot and nutritious, and delivered to people on the same day. Among the dishes there is Kashmiri Pulao, a festive rice dish made with spices, nuts, and fine quality rice; there is sambhar, a Tamil dish of lentils stewed with vegetables; there is even biryani, a dish Indians eat in many parts of the country in which rice is garnished with slow cooked meat and spices.

“Many of the men that cook in the kitchens are cooks that have lost their jobs, assistants in Udupi restaurants (a typical South-Indian cuisine popular in Mumbai), “says Jesani. “And there are women, too, those that cook together during festival banquets for thousands of people at once —there is a collaborative effort in the kitchens.” 

In Mumbai and other cities, it has also been impossible for the poor to get rationed goods from the government. The shops that provide these are closed or empty, and food hasn’t been transported to them even now. “But many people don’t have a card for this ration,” says Jesani. “We have to remember how many people are undocumented in India – especially migrants from rural areas, and those that travel between states for work.” she adds. Like with the lack of ration cards, state and national initiatives are also often premised on filling applications online, a completely empty effort as most people do not have smartphones, or access to the internet - there is no way for many  people to access the food provided by the state.  

In many cases, Muslim and oppressed-caste Indians have been denied food; the bigoted atmosphere created against the country’s Muslims by the BJP government persists even during the pandemic. But in the community kitchens, “the cooking happens across religious and caste lines, which is important,” says Jesani. “We cannot let the division that this government has propagated seep in. But when [people] cook together, it strengthens the community” says Jesani. “They are feeding themselves, and so they can question and demand answers from the state.”

As India enters its 4th phase of lockdown, the outbreak of the virus was predicted but the widespread hunger was not.  In Bengal, which has been ravaged by the cyclone Amphan, community kitchens and relief is being distributed by students. The region endures a double challenge; rural communities that had their livelihoods destroyed by the pandemic have now had homes destroyed by the cyclone. While the middle and rich classes swarm on the internet with fresh bakes and home-cooked recipes, India’s poor walk thousands of kilometres for a meal.

A funding campaign was launched by the Government of India, receiving substantial donations from millionaires and Bollywood stars, but there has been no transparency where, and if, this money is being spent. And even though India has enough food to feed its hungry, its circulation is missing, and the most vulnerable are bearing the brunt of the crisis. 

In Pul Mithai, outside Bind’s kitchen, he says young men have been fighting for food, which has dangerously escalated to one of them being hurt. “It is like a famine” says Bind, as he boils milk for tea; he expects that many will stumble into his kitchen, looking for anything to keep them going. “These are the people that build the country, and I won’t let [the government] bleed us dry” he says. “Even if they aren’t going to do anything, I have to take care of my own people - I can’t let them starve.”

 

This article has been simultaneously published in Norwegian by Transit Magazine.


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