Hunger Heatwave: Is there a starvation crisis waiting to explode in the national capital?

Image Courtesy: Noah Seelam/AFP

Delhi is scorching under heatwave conditions with temperatures already reaching around 45 degree celsius in the last week of May 2020. Usually the hot summer months see the streets of the national capital region nearly deserted of pedestrian traffic after noon, only to build up again after sundown. But this summer things are a bit different, as people are learning to live with the coronavirus pandemic across the world, we are rediscovering a fresh crisis spilling out onto our streets. 

As the coronavirus lockdown slowly eases up, and road traffic has been building up, commuters across the city have begun noticing an increased number of people asking for food from passersby. Not money. They just want food, and if possible some milk or water. “I swear on my children didi, I have no work now, nor does my husband, we are reduced to this. I just want milk for my youngest and some food for the older kid,” says Mohini Devi who just sits near a mother dairy booth and waits for people to give her something. She doesn't know how to beg for money, but has lost her job as a maid and needs to feed her kids, especially the younger one, a toddler who does not eat the food she collects from the volunteers. She is dressed in a clean sari, hair tied back, head covered, bindi in place and wears a cloth mask. She looks out of place and one can only wonder at the great desperation that has forced her to sit on this street corner. 

Two months of unemployment, with many middle class households not paying full wages and some are even sacking their househelp now, the situation is likely to get worse as summer intensifies.

There are many more like Mohini, are now hanging around red lights, markets, and near food distribution points where volunteers come. They are hungry and seek food and water, they do not know how to ‘beg’. So they line up, with bags to collect whatever food is being distributed that day. Some kind teenagers gave a young mother in another area some tetra packs of juice, and  biscuits at a local market, but she still waited for a bit longer hoping for someone to give her a pouch of milk for her baby, and gets up to leave quietly when that is handed over. “I will try and not come here tomorrow, doing this is so shameful but I have no option right now,” she says, almost on the verge of tears. She says she doesn't want to be recognised as a beggar in the market near her former employers house.

Less than 10 kilometers away, on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, the line of people collecting food from the ‘Congress Rasoi’ outside the party’s Delhi State office has suddenly grown. The cooked food is running low as people are now collecting the rice, and vegetable curry for the entire family. “It is too hot to bring my old parents to  stand in line, so my friend and I come to collect food once a day for everyone,” said Amit, a young man who also hopes to get some footwear as his only slipper has begun to crack at the edge.

The nearly 60 kg of cooked food ran out in record time, and the volunteers rushed to bring out snack packets that they usually distribute to migrant labourers waiting at the New Delhi Railway station hoping to take the train home. Of course the packet is labeled with the photos of Congress leaders. But no one seems to care at the moment. Across the road is the Aam Aadmi Party office and down is the massive and posh head office of the Bharatiya Janata Party. There are no  queues there, as there is no food being distributed at those gates.

Another group is worse off near the Rajghat Crossing, they just sit under the trees and also wait. In the lockdown, the tourists who visit by the busloads during summer vacations have not come this year. On their return journey, many would give away extra food and water they carried in the buses, but not anymore. Even those officially classified as ‘beggars’ seeking alms at most city crossings are now just hoping for ready to eat food (most do not have any means to cook dry rations), drinking water, footwear and of course money if possible. More wait near the Nigambodh ghat crematorium. There are few mourners now coming to attend funerals, and even fewer donating alms and food like they once used to.

“The number of people begging on the streets of Delhi for food is extremely worrying. Haven't seen anything like this before,” posted Journalist Manu Pubby.

“We will all die this summer, I do not even have a village to go back to. I do not have any [ration/ aadhaar] card also,” said this young man who seemed to be in his 20s seeking a handout at the ITO crossing, he just grew up on the city streets and has never seen a time like this in his life. 

As veteran journalist Sheela Bhatt posted, the situation is bad across the NCR even in the posher areas, “Yesterday, I saw more than three dozen beggars between Lodhi road and Defence Colony. Many more outside Sai temple. Very worrying."

The hunger crisis has also brought out  the ugly side of the north Indian middle class. While some better off people have also helped themselves to the free food being distributed, their insensitivity has paled in comparison to the criminal ways of a crowd that was seen looting mangoes from a poor vendor.

According to an NDTV report, a mob of middle class shoppers in north Delhi's Jagatpuri area saw some unattended crates of mangoes and looted it. They carried off the mangoes however they could in what can only be called a day time robbery. The produce belonged to the fruit seller, later identified as Chhote, who had taken a loan to restart his business as the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were eased in Delhi. NDTV reports that there was a scuffle and a group of men came here and asked Chhote to move his cart away. As he was busy negotiating the mango crates lay unguarded. That was enough to attract the scavenging mobs to begin stealing. “Riders put mangoes in their helmets. Others called out like hawkers, encouraging everyone to help themselves,” stated NDTV and the video clip of this mob attack on the vendor went viral. 

He lost stock worth Rs 30,000. “They took everything," Chhote said. Meanwhile, both the state and Union governments are yet to recognise a possible starvation crisis unfolding across the country. 

First published in Sabrang India.