‘Will a disease kill us, or will hunger get to us first?’ : Scenes of severe hunger and distress in Delhi
Ground Report

‘Will a disease kill us, or will hunger get to us first?’ : Scenes of severe hunger and distress in Delhi

The Delhi government has enhanced food rations and distributes cooked food in night shelters and schools. But it isn’t nearly enough.

By Anumeha Yadav

Published on :

On March 30, the fifth day of the 21-day nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, National Highway 48 was deserted except for a police car and barricades. Four people walked slowly along the pavement of the highway, which connects Delhi to Jaipur, 250 km away.

Geeta Goswami and her husband Nakul, both daily wage workers who sweep factories and carry bricks at construction sites, were trying to find a food distribution point to obtain food or dry rations.

Kiran Arora, a domestic worker, and her husband Subhash, a construction worker, had been able to get dry rations from their daughter who lived 10 km away. Subhash carried a 10 kg bag of flour slung across his forehead.

Subhash Arora a construction worker carried flour from his daughter home and had stopped outside Calista Resorts on NH-24.
Subhash Arora a construction worker carried flour from his daughter home and had stopped outside Calista Resorts on NH-24.Anumeha Yadav

The Goswamis and the Aroras live along the state borders of Delhi and Haryana. They feared the hostility of the administration if they were caught violating the lockdown, even as they scourged for food and rations.

On the first day of the national lockdown, on March 25, the Delhi government was prompt to announce that it will enhance the quantity of subsidised food grains given under the National Food Security Act to urban poor, from five kg a month to 7.5 kg. Under the public distribution system, the government provides food rations to 72 lakh residents, which is less than 40 percent of Delhi’s total population of 1.93 crore.

Social activists, however, point out that nearly 70 percent of Delhi’s population — nearly 1.3 crore people — live in slums, jhuggi jhopdi or “JJ clusters”, village settlements, and resettlement colonies. Delhi’s ration lists, like in most other states, is based on the 2011 census but Delhi’s population has grown since then.

In a crisis like this, when lakhs of migrant workers who live in Delhi have lost access to daily wage work or temporary work contracts, many more need support with accessing food and minimum nutrition.

The long road to find food

A few states such as Haryana have passed orders that impose penal sanctions that criminalise migrant workers found on the roads.

On March 29, Navdeep Singh Virk, the Haryana additional deputy general of police for law and order, had issued a letter noting “jay-walking on the roads with luggage/family members is completely prohibited”. Anyone violating the lockdown would be turned back, the letter said, and could be arrested under the Disaster Management Act and kept at indoor stadiums which would serve as “temporary jails”.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that all establishments and public transport would remain closed till April 14, thousands of migrant workers — many of whom live and work at constructions sites, offices, workshops premises, highway hotels, or precariously on rent in slums in cities — began walking towards their villages, hundreds of kilometres away, on foot.

On March 29, the union cabinet secretary and union home secretary, in a video conference with the heads of the civil and police administration of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi, ordered officials to take steps to prevent this large-scale movement of low-income migrants on foot.

Workers living along the Delhi and Haryana border now battled both hunger and coercion.

Geeta and Nakul Goswami had stopped on the sidewalk outside Calista Resorts, a hotel that organises luxury wedding banquets on the highway. Migrants from Dhanbad in Jharkhand, 1,200 km away, they live with their five children in Dundahera near the Delhi-Gurugram border. The Goswamis had left home when they heard food packets were being distributed nearby.

“Someone told us that food was being distributed at a Krishna temple near Kapasheda Extension to those with ID cards,” Geeta said, a handkerchief tied over her face to protect herself from the coronavirus. “We walked to the temple with our Aadhaar cards...but we found nothing there. We tried to walk further but the police chased us back.”

“We heard there’s a food distribution point near Appu Ghar and are trying to reach there,” she continued, referring to a beach-themed water park spread over one million square feet in Gurugram, 10 km from where they stood.

Geeta and Nakul carry head-loads at construction sites and sweep factories in Udyog Vihar and the Gurugram industrial area. They earn Rs 280-300 on the days they’re able to find work.

Even as they struggled to find any meals to feed their children, the Goswamis were anxious of being stopped or caught by the police.

Quota-based restricted food security nets

Amrita Johri, an activist with the Delhi Rozi Roti Abhiyan said that the situation may get more critical in the coming days. Apart from Delhi’s 72 lakh ration card beneficiaries, at least 65 lakh more may need foodgrains now, she said.

“Malnutrition and starvation are not only confined to remote, rural areas of the country,” Johri said. “On July 24, 2018, three girls, below 10 years of age, died of starvation in Delhi. Their father had been unable to continue his work as a rickshaw-puller. In big cities such as Delhi, the poor have few means of social sustenance. They have fewer social networks, which may inhibit their ability to get loans or food on credit.”

On April 1, Kejriwal said that besides providing cooked food at 2,500 sites, the government would allow those without ration cards to apply for the card digitally with the help of community activists. The government would provide rations of grains to them for the period of the lockdown. Kejriwal said he estimated that 10 lakh residents may apply for ration this way.

Newslaundry reached out to the offices of chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia for comment on April 1 and 2, but received no response.

Indu Prakash Singh, a social activist who works with homeless communities and is an advisor to the Delhi government on current relief measures, said the government is trying to proactively reach out to those who lack ration cards.

He pointed out that the framework of the National Food Security Act has a narrow rather than universal approach to food security, which is exacerbating hunger now.

“This crisis shows that the government of India’s approach of a quota system under the public distribution system — where a pre-decided number of ration cards are allotted to each state — is faulty,” said Singh. “Even those who are eligible get excluded and cannot get help if this quota has been met. They continue to face hunger while the government focuses on meaningless projects like making everyone enroll for Aadhaar, or making a population register — being on which still does not qualify one to get food rations.”

Singh receives between 12 and 15 food distress calls every day. For instance, civil society organisations found that Gadia Lohars, a nomadic tribe community with 1,294 families living near Shiv Vihar, Azadpur, Pala and Mangolpuri, were facing desperate hunger. Singh said it’s a challenge to identify such pockets of deep distress, tucked between Delhi’s rich and upper middle class areas.

Singh has also written a letter to the Delhi police commissioner, asking that the police be humane towards desperate workers trying to reach food distribution points.

Pockets of deep distress

South West Delhi is the site of several residential colonies for the rich, as well as Delhi’s international airport. From the highway, a road turns towards a leafy enclave of Kapasheda, where urban farmhouses serve as luxury residences. Some of these residences are rented out for weddings, or used as rental space by automobile multinational corporations in the National Capital Region to park their inventories.

Amid the large residences, with boundary walls covered in concertina wires, over 50 waste-pickers have built makeshift houses and work-sites on a vacant plot. They use the space to assemble garbage collected from the farmhouses and industries nearby, sorting it into paper, cardboard, glass, food waste, and mineral water bottles that can be recycled.

A child collects cooked a meal rice and chickpeas at Kapasheda border near Haryana for her family.
A child collects cooked a meal rice and chickpeas at Kapasheda border near Haryana for her family.Anumeha Yadav

In a corner of the plot, an old couple sat on their haunches, their eyes vacant as they looked at a food truck parked nearby. Behind them, toddlers played on rubber tubes suspended from branches of trees.

Yogendra Kevat and his wife, Shanichari, migrated to Delhi five years ago from Nalanda in Bihar, 1,100 km away, after their eldest son died in an accident while working at a village fair. In Nalanda, the couple worked as labourers on an upper caste Rajput landowner’s farm in the village. In exchange for work, they received three to five kg of wheat or rice daily during the harvest season.

The family had taken a loan of Rs 50,000 from a local moneylender to pay for their daughter’s wedding. At 60 percent interest, the debt increased to Rs 2 lakh. When their son died, the Kevats had no income, and the couple moved to Delhi to look for paid work.

Pheri maarte hai. We go around collecting what can be recycled from garbage,” Yogendra said.

They earn Rs 3-4 for every kg of plastic bottles or cardboard, Rs 3 per kg for glass bottles and paper, and Rs 12 per kg for mineral water bottles. “They contractors pay us Rs 200-300 if we collect 40-45 kg of scrap a day,” he said.

The family had a ration card in Nalanda, where the dealer would usually hand out four kg of rice per person per month, after siphoning off a kilogram each from their entitlements. But in Delhi, they have no ration card and no access to subsidised grains.

“Here, we can eat only when we can earn and purchase grains,” Yogendra said. “In a lockdown, we cannot even afford a cup of tea.”

The Kevats’ neighbour, Rashida Ansari, had a baby three months ago. She sat nearby, her baby in her lap and her three-year-old daughter standing by. Rashida’s family works as scrap collectors too. She had heard that cooked food was being distributed at a government school in Samalka two kilometres away, but was not sure if she could walk there with her two infants.

Rashida who lives in Kabadi Basti near Kapasheda farm houses had delivered a baby 3 months back and found it hard to aceess food at a school 2 km away.
Rashida who lives in Kabadi Basti near Kapasheda farm houses had delivered a baby 3 months back and found it hard to aceess food at a school 2 km away.Anumeha Yadav

Bhupen Biswas, who is in his 20s and works as a waste-picker, said he was scared the police would arrest them.

“If the police catch us going to a grocery shop nearby, they thrash us,” he said. “How will we reach a school building two kilometres away across the highway?”

‘Employers don’t respond, state sends us in circles’

On the other side of NH 24, at Kapasheda border behind the office of the South West Delhi district commissioner, is a slum that’s home to over one lakh people. Ranging from Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Nepal, they work as sweepers, construction workers, tailors, waste-pickers, and domestic workers.

A mini-truck of NGOs Janpahal and Sajag Society pulled up, carrying two large vessels of cooked rice and chickpeas. As it parked in a narrow road adjacent to the houses and huts, several women lined up, empty pots in one hand, their infant children in tow.

These women work on piece-rate, daily wage, part-time, or informal contracts in Delhi and in factories in industrial areas in Haryana’s Dhundakheda, Udyog Vihar, and Manesar. Most of them have lived in Delhi for seven or more years but have still not been able to get ration cards.

Pinky Devi, who stood in queue with her daughter, said the male members of her family had left for Samastipur in Bihar, leaving the two of them behind.

Pinky works at Shivank Udyog Limited, a ready-made garments export factory in Gurugram, where she cuts threads at piece-rate wages. “I have lived here for seven years but cannot get a ration card,” she said. “When I applied to get it made, the officials asked for an electricity bill to show proof of living here, which I do not possess.”

Jhuni Devi, from Paharpur village in Bihar’s Nalanda, stood in the queue for over an hour in the sun to collect cooked food for her three children. Along with her mother-in-law, she’s collected and recycled waste and scrap in south Delhi for the last 20 years. She said she had not been able to feed her three children for two days.

Jhunni a waste picker collected cooked food for her three infants She has been unable tp get a ration card.
Jhunni a waste picker collected cooked food for her three infants She has been unable tp get a ration card.Anumeha Yadav

Another resident of the slum, Neeraj Valmiki, from Bulandshahr in Delhi said she had lived in Delhi for 25 years, and has an Aadhaar biometric ID and PAN. Yet, she’s still unable to enroll as a ration beneficiary.

“In Delhi, they say ‘It will not be made here, go to your village’,” said Valmiki. “In the village, they told my family it cannot be made. They send us from one point to another. No one listens to the poor.”

Valmiki worked at a “canteen” in Samalka in Delhi that supplied packed tiffin to office employees in Surya Vihar. She swept and cooked here, earning Rs 1,000-2,000 a month. “They are not giving cash now saying they are in trouble, but what will I feed my children?” she asked. “There is not a rupee at home.”

Laxmi Devi from Etah district, Uttar Pradesh, cleans staircases and lifts loads at construction sites. “For sweeping, some will pay just Rs 100-150. If they are honest, they pay Rs 300,” she told Newslaundry. To supplement her income from sweeping, she had worked at a construction site in Shankar Chowk, mixing brick material. She received Rs 250 a day for 10 days of work.

Laxmi too was not able to get a ration card, even though she had enrolled for an Aadhaar ID and a PAN card. She has been struggling to feed her children for a week. “There is nothing in my house. Come and see,” she said.

The Delhi government said it will double the pension amount of Rs 2,000 a month during the lockdown. Nazneen Kahtun, who is from Patna, had tried to enroll her mother, a widow, under the National Social Assistance Programme to get a widow’s pension. She submitted her mother’s Aadhaar details as well as proof of ID of her dead father, but was unable to enroll her as a beneficiary.

Living hand to mouth

As the queue lengthened, Laxmi Devi and few women from the Dalit castes gathered, saying the food truck wasn’t going into their lane, further inside the slum. A few men, watching from a distance, were also impatient.

Avadesh Kumar lifts furniture for movers and packers at a daily wage contract of Rs 400 a day, occasionally supplementing his income by working at construction sites. He said he had tried to go to one of the Delhi government’s food distribution sites, but faced threats and violence on his way back.

“When I tried to go on the highway, the police turned me back and said, ‘Go through the inner lanes’,” said Avadesh, who moved to Delhi from Navada in Bihar in 1992. “But when I tried to use the inner lanes, young men from our village, who were wielding sticks, tried to stop me, saying I was violating the lockdown. They blocked the path and hit at my neighbour, Sudhir Ram.” Ram, who stood nearby, showed his hand, swollen from an injury.

Several young male workers were restless, telling Newslaundry they could not get either cooked food or rations as a lot of the distribution focused on women and children. To compound their problems, the police blocked their movement.

“The police send us back, the labour contractors don’t respond to our phone calls, NGOs prioritise feeding children and women, and neighbours block roads inside lines,” said Raj Kishore, who is in his late teens. Raj moved to Delhi from Motihari in Bihar. His family stayed behind in his village and he lives alone to save on living costs.

The Government Boys’ Senior Secondary School in Samalka, two km away, is one of the schools designated as a hunger relief centre. By 4.45 pm, an hour before cooked food will be distributed for 500 people, men and women were already outside the gate.

RS Yadav, the school principal, said the numbers of those waiting to get a meal goes up every day.

“When we started on March 28, there were 40 people, as the information hadn’t reached many,” Yadav said. “That night, there were over 100. On the morning of March 30, we could only serve 425 people and 50-60 others were left out. And the numbers are growing still.”

He added: “There are migrants here who work in big export firms in Udyog Vihar, but they live hand to mouth. If they do not go to work for even a week, they find it hard to feed their families.”

Yadav said that supply agencies had been told to provide packed food, since without packaging, the distribution could become unhygienic or unequal. “But so far, they have not been able to provide packets,” he said. “We give food in utensils which people bring from home.” He pointed towards three women staff members who usually serve school lunches, now preparing to organise queues for distribution.

The women workers are paid only Rs 1,000 a month to work in the human resources development ministry’s midday meal scheme. “If this goes off well, we will try to compensate the women workers better from the staff fund or some other reserves in the school,” he added.

Though the government in public messages has emphasised social distancing and following the lockdown guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, daily wage workers who waited outside the school building for one meal were exasperated and increasingly angry.

“They keep repeating ‘Stay inside your room, stay inside your room’. Shall we fill our stomach with Modi sarkar’s photographs as we stay inside?” asked Pushpa Devi, who worked in garment factories in Udyog Vihar on a daily contract, cutting threads and hand embroidering. She was pregnant with her second child.

She added: “I wish to ask them, ‘what is going on?’ Will a disease kill us, or will hunger get to us before then?”

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