Hunger was always a step away for the poorest in cities, never as bad as rural India, kept at bay by menial jobs and food handouts. Enforced at 4-hr notice, the world’s strictest lockdown changed all that
New Delhi: The young man, his face wrapped in a white handkerchief, was waiting his turn for the hot khichdi we were serving near an interstate bus terminus when he erupted.
“The government is asking us to stay indoors, in our homes,” he raged (see video). “Does it expect us to break the walls and eat the pieces?”
We met the young man at the Kashmere Gate, a normally teeming but now deserted bus terminus, in early April, two weeks into the world’s most-stringent lockdown, which began on 24 March 2020. As part of Karwan-e-Mohabbat, our effort to connect to those in need, our van was serving meals to those who were going hungry.
Even before the lockdown, hunger was not unknown in cities in India, which ranked 102 of 117 countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index. For destitute homeless people, as for old people without caregivers and disabled people, hunger was always a heartbeat away.
But most times it was kept at bay.
If you were willing to do the most humiliating, unprotected, exploitative work—pulling rickshaws, sorting waste, casual daily-wage work, even casual sex work—employment was mostly at hand. And when even that failed, gurudwaras, dargahs and temples were there for some food to stay alive.
We often assume that hunger is present only in rural India, and that although cities may engender other forms of violence, its colonies, shanties and streets are free of lingering hunger.
However, in two decades of my work among destitute and casually employed urban homeless people, I have discovered that hunger does indeed lurk even in the dark shadows of city lights, most of all among homeless people, indigent ageing, ailing and disabled people, and single women.
These levels of hunger are far less in normal times in cities than the endemic hunger we encounter in the countryside, across forested tribal and Dalit hamlets of landless workers, sharecroppers and small farmers, artisans and in the hovels of single women, old people without caregivers, persons with disability, the sick, the ailing and the stigmatized.
It is this everyday reality of urban India which the lockdown—announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for 1.3 billion Indians at four-hours’ notice—altered.
Within days of the precipitate closure of the country’s economy, we observed the sudden burgeoning of telltale signs of mass hunger in the city: of uncertainty about whether there would be food for the next day or even that night; of people spending hours in lines, sometimes stretching 2 km, for a ladle of poorly cooked food poured roughly into a plate or plastic envelope; of people scrambling over each other, unmindful of social distancing, when there was even a rumour of food being distributed.
These are scenes I saw decades back droughts that caused near famines in the countryside as a district officer, never before in a city.
Three weeks after the lockdown began, a survey of 11,159 migrant workers by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy, revealed that 50% of had rations left for less than a day, 72% said their rations would finish in two days; 96% had not received rations from the government; and 70% had not received any cooked food from any source.
Sujit Kumar, a worker from Bihar stranded in Bhatinda, Punjab, had not eaten in four days when one of our volunteers spoke with him on 3 April. Yasmeen, a 10th standard student in Noida, said, “We have four babies in the house for whom we need milk; we have been feeding them sugar water these days.”
The Battle In Court
A week into the lockdown, lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Cheryl D Souza filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court, seeking the upholding of the right to life with dignity under Article 19 of the Constitution for migrants hit by the sudden and severe lockdown. The petitioners were Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, and this writer.
The petition’s central demand was that the central and state must “jointly and severally” ensure payment of minimum wages to all migrant workers within a week, for the entire period of the lockdown, which eventually ran to 53 days.
This payment should be agnostic to whether they were employed in an establishment, engaged by contractors, or self-employed. The petition also demanded that this must be done by self-attestation and self-identification, because the state has no comprehensive record of employed workers, let alone casual and self-employed workers.
The union government reported to the Supreme Court that they had announced a financial package of Rs. 1.70 lakh crore. The petitioners replied that the package, just over 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), was “entirely inadequate” to deal with the crisis. Many elements of the scheme were additions to existing schemes, such as a daily wage increase under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or emergency support through the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Cess (BOCWC) Act funds. A rapid survey by Jansahas, an advocacy, of 3,196 migrant construction workers from North and Central India found that 94% of its respondents did not have BOCWC cards.
The union government said its financial package took care of the daily needs of every poor person, which included migrant workers and their families and there was no imperative for migrant workers to rush to their villages. Their daily needs were being taken care of wherever they were working, and the needs of their families were being taken care of in the villages.
The government informed the Supreme Court there were 26,476 active relief camps and shelters, in which 10,37,027 persons were housed. Kerala alone accounted for 59% of the relief camps and shelters. Haryana and Delhi accounted for 51% of the 1.5 million reportedly being fed. Estimates of migrant workers in India range from 40 million to 120 million; so, even if we use the lower end of the estimate, 2.5 million workers sheltered and fed accounted for only 6% of India’s migrant labour force.
In the course of the hearing on 7 April, the Chief Justice asked: “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?”
The government order ignored two of the most vulnerable segments of the labour market: casual daily wage workers, and self-employed persons like street vendors and ragpickers. Studies show that only 17% of workers in the informal sector have identifiable employers. The earnings of the remaining 83% would not be protected, even if every employer obeyed the 29 March 2020 government order.
The bench said that in times of such crisis, it did not want to interfere with government decisions. The judges said it would ask the government to put in place a helpline for complaints of inedible food in crowded shelters or the lack of food at the government’s feeding centres.
In the final hearing, a newly constituted bench (therefore not fully versed with the petitioners’ submissions in the previous hearings) very briefly heard the case. In this hearing, the petitioners additionally placed on the record of the Supreme Court the SWAN study. The Supreme Court said it could not rely on studies by private bodies when the government portrayed a completely different picture.
With this, the Supreme Court closed the case. The final order said: “We call upon the respondent, the Union of India, to look into such material and take such steps as it finds fit to resolve the issues raised in the petition.”
Hunger Among The Cooks Of Old Delhi
As I learnt, during the many days I walked the street with my young colleagues offering cooked food and dry ration packs to thousands across the city, hunger had deluged India’s capital city.
For the city’s homeless, the plunge off the cliff of hunger was most immediate after the lockdown. On the second day of the national lockdown, and four days after the lockdown in Delhi, my colleagues and I drove with cooked food to a street corner in a neighbourhood called Company Bagh, part of the walled city of Delhi, straddled by the Old Delhi Railway Station and the Town Hall in Chandni Chowk. This is a labour adda, where on any ordinary morning, you will find a thousand homeless men, offering their services for work on any terms. That day, their numbers had swelled many times, and people sat at the sidewalk as far as my eye could go, because they had word that we were arriving there with food.
“I have not seen a roti for four days,” a young man from Nepal said to us (see video and image below). “And to think that I earned my living by making rotis in a tandoor. I would earn Rs500-600 on any day. Today, I am waiting for hours for your rice gruel.”
There are many skilled workmen like me here, the young man continued. The word he used was karigar, or artisan. Several other voices joined in, speaking of their work in eateries and the irony of their hunger.
“We have no family, no Aadhar card, just our hands to work.” said another. We worked hard all day and collected Rs 500 and slept on the streets. But what can we do now, when our work is snatched away from us?’
Many named the prime minister in anger. “Why has Modiji done this to us?” asked one man. “If we are hungry, will we not be more at risk to catch the disease?”
Some young men rushed to hold the hands of a blind man holding a stick, who normally survived on alms. A woman came to us, clutching her small baby. She was returning to her village in Bihar by train, when trains were suddenly cancelled. A family in a hut near the station took pity on her and gave her food. “How long can I depend on them?” she said. “They also are now without work and food.”
A lament that we heard over and over in Company Bagh and in all the days that followed: “We may or may not die of Corona (sic). But we will surely die before that of hunger.”
Hunger By The Cremation Grounds
Yamuna Pushta is a stretch of land on the banks of the river it is named after, just adjacent to the Nigambodh cremation ground. Normally, there are about 4,000 near-destitute homeless men who live there.
In the early days of the lockdown, their numbers swelled to 10,000, as scattered homeless people from other locations and stranded migrants converged there, in the hope that food charities would reach them there because of their large numbers.
A legendary Sardarji (who insists on remaining anonymous) has fed at least 1,000 homeless people there every day for the last 15 years. The lines were far longer at the Pushta than even at Company Bagh. The men squatted in a line with their bodies stuck next to each other, their desperation making a mockery of social distancing. The rumour of food being supplied somewhere was enough to spark a stampede, and men fell over each other to reach the food. The old and disabled among them were always left far behind, empty handed.
The next day we went to Nizamuddin, home to thousands of homeless families. People there spoke to us in despair, of their food stores and money exhausted, of crying children being given black, watery tea instead of milk, of people falling sick.
“If we sleep at night, there is no food in the morning. If there is food in the morning, there is none at night,” said a woman (see video). “We try to kill our hunger with tea. But a cup of tea is for Rs 10, and four of us share this between ourselves.”
Hunger Outside The Bungalows
The settlements that fell to hunger soonest after the habitats of the homeless were the unauthorised slums that are crunched in most parts of the metropolis outside the leafy central zone occupied by ministers and officials in colonial bungalows.
As I was walking past a shanty of plastic roof and walls in Majnu ka Tila during our food distribution there, a woman hurriedly covered the vessel cooking over a fire of twigs on a brick stove outside her shanty with her sari edge.
“I am ashamed,” she told me because she was cooking chicken feet, usually thrown away as waste. “What can we do, when there is no money?”
Another woman suddenly burst into tears as she spoke with us (see video). “We heard someone was distributing food at the school. We rushed there,” she said. “But by the time our turn came, there was no food. They only gave us two bananas.”
She continued: “Come into my home and see for yourself. The stove is cold and unlit for many days. How can I light it when there is nothing for me to cook?”
In this crowded slum littered with rotting waste, people survive in normal times by carving stone silvattas (mortar-pestles), pull rickshaws, scavenge, work as domestic help or beg. All this halted overnight. Even children begging at traffic lights were driven away by the police.
The situation was no different in the slum in the shadow of Tughlakabad fort. Here, families went from house to house bartering vessels in exchange for old clothes, in addition to ragpicking and begging among the aged.
A young woman with a baby spoke into the camera wielded by my young collleague for his field report, addressing (see video) Modi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. “Is this what you want to reduce us to?” she asked them. Another said, “We fear now that we are fated to die. They say this will go on for a year. They will say we died of corona. But actually we would have died of hunger.”
Residents of Yamuna Pushta and Majnu ka Tila said that as summer peaked, drinking water was becoming almost as scarce as food. They have no water supply of any kind in both settlements, not even a public tap.
In Majnu ka Tila they carry water in plastic containers on their shoulders from outside an apartment building a kilometre away. In Tughalkabad, they beg the driver of the tanker that comes to water the trees lining the avenue for some water.
In both places, the police drive them away most times with batons. Bathing even occasionally is a challenge and washing hands out of the question. In normal times they paid Rs 10 in the morning and Rs 5 in the non-peak afternoons at the Sulabh toilet complex, to bathe or defecate. Now, when they don’t have money even for food, this is out of the question.
With No State Assistance, Food Lines And Charity
But the swelling deluge of hunger has progressed well beyond the squalor of unlit homeless settlements and unauthorised slums.
We heard from the collectives of sex workers (see video) about how work had completely dried up. Many home-based sex workers are migrants from Hindi-speaking states and did not have ration cards or Aadhar cards with a Delhi address and were excluded from state assistance. They survived only with the ration kits we were able to supply every 10 days.
Our Karwan helpline was jammed with calls from industrial areas, such as Nangloi. The winding lines of people who gathered to receive our ration kits consisted mostly of factory workers in micro and small industrial units there, making shoes, chappals, jeans, and a surprising range of other products.
Not one of the women and men we spoke to received the statutory minimum wage in these factories in normal times. Still, work was regular and secure, although it was rare for any to have any kind of written contracts. After the lockdown, some employers paid them for the month of March, but few beyond that. Most did not have the capacity to pay at all. Their landlords were also pressing them for rent. The workers did not blame them. Many were not much wealthier than their workers and critically depended on this rental income.
The workers found themselves dependent almost entirely on food charity from the government, lining up outside schools for several hours for cooked meals or for ration kits of the kind we were able to reach to them (see video).
The accounts from my colleagues of hunger from other parts of the country, such as Bihar, Assam and Uttar Pradesh, are more acute. After Kerala, Delhi is rated relatively favourably for its efforts, after a late start, to reach cooked food and rations to many impoverished residents.
Yet, food security even in a relatively well-performing state is reduced to standing in line outside schools twice a day for several hours each time for a maximum of two helpings of cooked food.
Everywhere we travelled, we were engulfed in complaints of poorly cooked food, watery dal and undercooked rice, which is not the staple of many people in North India. Food could run out as lines stretched sometimes for kilometres, leading to a disabling sense of uncertainty, frayed tempers and, sometimes, small stampedes.
An e-coupon system of rations for those who don’t have ration cards, required both a smartphone and proof of a Delhi address, excluding both the vulnerable and migrants.
I write this a month and a half into the lockdown, based on what I saw and heard during our food distribution in Delhi.
The hunger we encountered is likely to swell further in the coming months. Hunger is preventable by public policy and state action. This is the most elementary duty of the state. This mass hunger was the creation of state policy.
(Harsh Mander, a former Indian Administrative Service officer, is an activist and writer)