Hunger of City Streets: Before and After the Lockdown

Image courtesy FICA

It is nearly two weeks into the nationwide lockdown that began early April. Our food van is parked near the now-deserted Kashmere Gate interstate bus stand in Delhi. A young man, his face wrapped in a white hanky, is awaiting his turn to receive the hot khichdi which we are serving in the solidarity feeding efforts of the Karwan e Mohabbat1. He erupts in rage, “The government is asking us to stay indoors in our homes. Does it expect us to break the walls and eat the pieces?”

Even before the lockdown, hunger was not unknown in cities. For destitute homeless people,  for old people without care-givers, for disabled people, hunger was always just a heartbeat away. But mostly they managed to keep it at bay. If one was willing to do even 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, one could find just enough food at gurudwaras, dargahs and temples.We often assume that hunger defaces only the rural landscape, and that although cities may engender other forms of violence, its colonies, shanties and streets are free of the most terrible form of want — of lingering hunger, a gnawing, shaming, constantly unsettling denial of the assurance of a full stomach. 

 Albeit, 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, the stigmatised – is way worse, in the 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.

It is this everyday reality of urban India which the lockdown — announced by Prime Minister Modi in a country of billion and a quarter people with just four hours’ notice — has altered calamitously. Literally within days of the precipitate closure of the country’s economy, we observed the sudden burgeoning of tell-tale signs of mass hunger in the city: of the persisting and debilitating humiliation; of uncertainty about whether there would be food for the next day, or even that night; of people spending hours in lines, sometimes stretching  for two kilometres, for a small ladle of poorly cooked food poured roughly into a plate or plastic envelope2; of people scrambling over each other, unmindful of “social distancing” at the slightest hint of food being distributed3. Never did I imagine that I would see the scenes I saw decades ago as a district officer, in areas of near-famine like droughts,  in a city.

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But as I learnt, during the many days I walked the streets with my young colleagues offering cooked food and dry ration packs to thousands across the city, hunger had suddenly deluged Delhi like from a dam burst — submerging its residents with dehumanising shame, desperation and torment of an uncertainty about whether they would succeed in feeding their loved ones and fill their own bellies.

The plunge down the cliff of hunger was most immediate after the lockdown for the city’s homeless. 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 the Walled City of Delhi, called Company Bagh. It is perched between the Old Delhi Railway Station on one side and the Town Hall in Chandni Chowk on the other. This is a “labour adda” where on any ordinary morning, you will find a thousand homeless men gather, offering their services for work on any terms. Today, their numbers had swelled many times, and people sat at the sidewalks as far as my eyes could go, because they received word that we were coming with food.

A young man from Nepal said to us, “I have not seen a roti for four days. I earned my living by making rotis in a tandoor. I would earn 500- 600 rupees on any day. Today I am waiting for hours for your rice gruel”4. “There are many skilled workmen like me here”, he added. The word he used was karigar, or artisan. Several other voices joined his, speaking of their work in eateries and the irony and anguish of their hunger. “We have no family, no aadhar card, just our hands to work. We would work hard all day, and collect 500 rupees, to sleep on the streets. What are we supposed to do now that our work is snatched away from us?”

They would often name Prime Minister Modi in their anger. “Why has Modiji done this to us? If we are hungry, will we not be at a higher risk of catching the disease?”

Some young men rushed to hold the hand of a blind man holding a stick, who normally survived by 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. “But how long can I depend on them? They are also without work and food now”.

And a lament we heard again and again in Company Bagh, and in all the days which followed, ‘We may or may not die of corona. But we will surely die before that, of hunger”.

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Yamuna Pushta is a stretch of land on the banks of the river, just adjacent to the Nigambodh cremation ground. Normally there are about 4000 near-destitute homeless men who live there. In the early days of the lockdown, their numbers swelled to 10000, as scattered homeless people from other locations converged there, as did stranded migrants, in the hope that food charities would reach them there because of their large numbers.

A Sardarji, who insists on remaining anonymous, has fed at least a thousand homeless people in the area every day for the last 15 years. The lines were far longer at the Pushta than at Company Bagh. The men squatted in a line with their bodies stuck next to each other, their desperation making a mockery of the official platitude 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 despairingly of their already exhausted stored food and money; of having to give children crying for milk, watery black tea; 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”. A woman said: “We try to kill our hunger with tea. But a cup of tea is for 10 rupees, and four of us share have to share it between ourselves”5.

And here again we encountered helpless, powerless rage. “How can we survive without work, you tell me? They are killing the poor like dogs”. “I was begging at a traffic light”, an old man added. “I was hungry, and also longing for a cup of tea. But the police beat me with their lathis. Do you see the blood on my pyjama?”

***

The settlements that fell to hunger soon 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 explained to me simply. She felt humiliated that she was cooking the feet of chickens which are usually thrown away as waste. “What can we do, when there is no money?” I tried to gently tell her that it is not her who should be ashamed, but the government which has compelled her to do this. She was valiantly doing all she could to feed her family. She should only feel pride that she is holding her family together.

Another woman suddenly burst into tears as she spoke with us6. “We heard someone was distributing food at the school. We rushed there. But by the time our turn came, there was no food. They only gave us two bananas”. She continued, “Come to my house 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 for grinding chutney, pulling rickshaws, ragpicking, domestic help and begging. All of this was halted overnight. Even children begging at traffic lights were now driven away harshly by the police.

The situation is no different in the slum in the shadow of Tughlakabad fort. Here, families go 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 colleague for his field report, addressing Modi and Kejriwal7. “Is this what you want to reduce us to?”, she asked them piercingly. 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 both settlements said that as summer is peaking, drinking water is 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 Tija they have to carry water in plastic containers on their shoulders from outside an apartment building a kilometre away. In Tughlakabad, they beg the driver of the tanker that comes to water the trees lining the avenue, for some water. In both places, they are mostly driven away by police with batons. Bathing even occasionally is a challenge, and washing hands is out of the question. In normal circumstances, they pay 10 rupees in the morning and 5 during the  non-peak hours of the afternoons at the Sulabh Complex, to bathe or defecate. Now that they don’t even have the money for food, Sulabh is out of the question.

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But the swelling deluge of hunger in the city has rapidly broken into other parts of the metropolis, well beyond the squalor of these unlit homeless settlements and unauthorised slums. We heard from the collectives of sex workers about how work had completely dried up8. 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 therefore excluded from state assistance. They survived only with the ration kits we were able to supply every ten days.

Our Karwan helpline number was jammed with calls from industrial areas like Nangloi. The winding lines of people who gathered to receive our ration kits comprised 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 even the statutory minimum wage in these factories in normal times.  But still, work was regular and secure, although it was rare for anyone 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 them at all. Their landlords were also pressing them for rent. They did not blame them. Many were not much wealthier than them, and critically depended on this rental income.

Precipitously now they found themselves dependent almost entirely on food charity from the government, outside schools where they lined up for several hours for cooked meals, or ration kits of the kind we were able to reach them with9.

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The accounts from my colleagues of hunger from other parts of the country, such as Bihar, Assam and Uttar Pradesh, are even more terrifying. Delhi is among the states and union territories in India which, after Kerala, is rated relatively favourably for its efforts — after a late start — to reach cooked food and rations to many of its impoverished residents. 

And yet food security even in a relatively “well-performing” state is reduced now to the indignity 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 with complaints of poorly cooked food – undercooked rice and watery dal – and that rice is anyway not the staple of many people in North India. Food could run out as lines stretched sometimes for kilometres, leading to a diminishing and disabling sense of uncertainty, frayed tempers, and sometimes small stampedes. The e-coupon system for rations for those who don’t have ration cards, required both a smart phone and proof of a Delhi address, excluding both the vulnerable and migrants.

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I write this a month and a half into the lockdown, based on what I saw and heard during our solidarity food distribution in Delhi.  This is likely to only swell further in the coming months. The indignity and untold torment of hunger is entirely preventable. This is the most elementary duty of the state. But the state is adrift, bereft of vision, administrative capacity, urgency and public compassion. The raging floodwaters of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis show no signs of ebbing.


1.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gy_Vli4B4BA&t=4s
2.https://scroll.in/article/959565/watch-in-delhi-hungry-people-join-a-2-km-long-food-queue-in-peak-afternoon-sun
3.https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronavirus-covid-19-lockdown-poor-6333452/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn-giC1Qk5M&t=3s
4.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn-giC1Qk5M&t=3s
5.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn-giC1Qk5M&t=3s
6.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYK9Z5LHQvg&t=1s
7.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCzwtfi1Dig&t=368s
8.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9W4hR7BWo8&t=42s
9.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQfDfn4dkvY&t=15s

A modified version of this article was first published in Article 14.