100 Days of Bhiwandi: One Community Kitchen Tells An Inspiring Story of Giving Back During COVID-19

100 Days of Bhiwandi: One Community Kitchen Tells An Inspiring Story of Giving Back During COVID-19
Image Source: Facebook (Anish Gawande)

On March 25, 2020, PM Narendra Modi announced a lockdown in India due to the coronavirus outbreak, leaving daily wage workers and the urban poor across Mumbai stranded without food or basic necessities.

During the lockdown, people in the city’s slums and underprivileged pockets did not have food, water, shelter and jobs. Some of the daily wage workers had to let go of their employment opportunities and were left starving for months. Many NGOs, associations and kind-hearted individuals stepped forward to help by planning campaigns and strategies to ensure that millions are protected in this time of crisis.

While the government announced several initiatives, officials were not able to reach every household to ensure the support was extended to all those in need. Amidst the many people who were working for the betterment of the community were a group of Mumbai-based youngsters who identified problems associated with a large community of people in Bhiwandi.

Nabeel Shah and Anish Gawande came together to lead the Mumbai chapter of Youth Feed India, a national relief initiative kickstarted by Hyderabad-based Shaaz Mehmood, Chennai-based Tanya Reddy, and Bengaluru-based Deepti Kat. They created a group of twelve changemakers who were out to make a difference: Latisha Shah, Shraddha Kapoor, Mili Sanwalka, Aamir Shah, Noorain Merchant, Maansi Vohra, Aarya Shah, Sanaya Irani Zohrabi, and Hriyanka Shah.

Youth Feed India’s Mumbai chapter began helping daily wage labourers, marginalized communities like transgender citizens and sex workers, and migrant workers by delivering almost 10,000 dry ration packages across the city. Along the way, the team received a crisis call from Bhiwandi. The condition of power loom workers was critical – and lakhs of employees lost their jobs and faced the prospect of starvation.

The organisation got together with Vaishali Janarthanan to create an action plan for Bhiwandi. They got in touch with designer mother-daughter duo Sunita Namjoshi and Yamini Namjoshi, set up a fundraiser with Helping Hands Charitable Trust and social worker Anil Hebbar and began delivering ration kits via two grassroots organisations in Bhiwandi (Powerloom Sangharsh Samiti and Movement for Justice & Peace). Initially, with support from YUVA and later through independent efforts, they created a community kitchen feeding more than 6,000 people each day.

Today, 100 days down the line, their efforts are still going strong. Despite a variety of challenges, the team has kept the community kitchen going and delivered ration kits to more than 4000 families.

Speaking about the challenges they faced and if they received support from the government, Anish Gawande told Mumbai Live, "When we started off, we had no support from either the government or any elected official. Almost a month into our relief efforts, when we hit some hurdles with funding, we approached the Thane Collector. While we received some support in terms of sanitation supplies and managed to push our demand to make public toilets in the region free, there was too much bureaucratic red tape to receive substantial amounts of support.”

The challenge, according to Anish, was that there was no standardized record of how many people lived in Bhiwandi. “According to the census, there were only 7 lakh residents in Bhiwandi. But journalists and power loom union leaders have established that there are 6 lakh power loom workers in the area alone! Then you have rickshaw drivers, head loaders, cobblers, families of these workers, and other residents. The number is much, much higher than the census count.”

This lack of information on a number of residents created roadblocks in any planning or preparation for relief work. Few community kitchens were started by the municipal corporation – but they could not match the demand of thousands of people who were going to bed hungry.

“Government efforts, unfortunately, were incredibly delayed. The central government announced ration for those without ration cards at the beginning of May – but that ration did not reach Maharashtra until the end of June! At the local level, there was a discrepancy in which ration shops gave the proper amount of ration and which did not – every step of the way, there were hurdles holding back relief efforts,” said Anish.

For him, the only solution is to empower local officials and hold local elected representatives accountable for delivering relief efforts. “Corporators, MLAs and other local leaders know the situation on the ground better than any bureaucrat does. They need to step up to help out in their neighbourhoods. Moreover, we need to rebuild the public distribution system – which has been systematically dismantled over the years. Short-term band-aid fixes will lead us nowhere,” added Anish, visibly distressed over the crisis.

Organisation across the country have realised that there is a crucial problem of a scarcity of resources.

"Today, we are living in unprecedented times and facing a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Unlike a drought or a flood, one cannot set up a food collection centre during a pandemic. It is necessary for us to find innovative ways to ensure the direct delivery of services. This is where we need the government to step up and provide citizens with the bare minimum - food and healthcare. It is shameful that people in India are starving to death in 2020. Something like this is simply unacceptable," Anish added.

With the pandemic showing no signs of easing, the team aims to continue running the kitchen for as long as there is a need for assistance. They also aim to keep aside some funds to ensure that support can be provided on an emergency basis to people who lose jobs or face any crisis. However, they recognize that - in the long term - NGOs cannot sustain themselves on such a model. The team is looking at providing alternatives for a group of people who will be affected with unemployment, even after the lockdown is partially lifted.

There are many such COVID heroes who are helping several communities in need, be it through food, travel, or meals. The crisis we are facing is clear, and it is time that one questions officials with regards to steps being taken for relief efforts. It is time to raise concerns about the policies drafted by the government - and their ability to fulfil the promises they have made.

While there are kind-hearted souls doing their bit, is it right to depend on them for support? Should they be doing this in the first place? A lot of money is being raised by the people to help others in need, while this could be used wisely elsewhere. The government needs to be questioned for efforts 'not taken' while several ministers who are capable to doing their part, are merely applauding and appreciating on social media platforms, and not seen in public, as expected.

NGOs can be a support, but not the norm. It is time to fix the system.

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