Many of us are still grappling with the new reality as life returns to normalcy after 128 days of a rigorous lockdown. The ongoing pandemic has disturbed the notions of normalcy — from a simple lifestyle choice like taking a morning walk to the functioning of the global economy. The pandemic has so far exposed the realities of a fractured system, and it serves as a clarion call to rethinking our priorities.
Mumbai became a COVID-19 hotspot in India essentially risking its 20 million residents. The density of population, rising slum clusters and an unorganized topography worsened the situation. Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the authority in charge of managing the crisis was struggling to meet this unprecedented challenge. However, many private initiatives, either crowdfunded or supported by philanthropy, played a key role in containing the crisis.
One such afternoon in May, I read that Khaana Chahiye — a Mumbai based initiative catering to the vulnerable in the city, has decided to expand its operations to Thane. This was right when Mumbai faced a migrant crisis as thousands of migrants who came to the city in search of opportunities were ready to leave as the local economy collapsed. It was not just in Mumbai, but migrant populations across India started leaving the economic hubs for their hometowns mostly in the Northern states in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. An estimated 10 lakh migrants left Mumbai between March and May.
This is not to debate the relevance of the lockdown or discuss the migrant crisis further. It is about what lies forward for us as a society. My attempt here is to address some concerns which many of us reflected upon while working on the field and observing these situations unfolding right in front of us.
Khaana Chahiye was among the largest private relief efforts in Mumbai. This became very evident for me while coordinating their operations. While on the one hand, teams were serving food on five key arterial roads of the city, there were others who were at three railway stations — Bandra, Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) assisting the system in serving the Shramik Expresses. It was a herculean task to manage 150 ground volunteers covering not just Mumbai but expanding towards Thane and Navi Mumbai.
Khaana Chahiye was serving 70,000 meals daily during the lockdown. During the last week of May, when the situation intensified — they peaked at almost 1 lakh meals for a couple of days. This was made possible by a specific mechanism which proved successful. Their system utilized the unused kitchens in the city to cook and distribute meals twice a day. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai was distributing cooked meals through its own system too. Kavita Iyer has covered this situation in her article published in The Indian Express. “Three weeks into the national lockdown, organizations and individuals providing free meals in Mumbai are unanimous: hunger in the financial capital has grown sharply and continues to grow”, she observes.
India has not fared well on the Global Hunger Index, performing worse than its neighbours. It ranked 102nd out of 117 countries in 2019, slipping from its 95th spot in 2018. One can imagine the situation during a national lockdown in early 2020 and its ramifications on public health. We have an ailing public health system, and it always acts as a disadvantage towards the poor. Despite being one of the fastest-growing economies, India ranks abysmally low on healthcare spending — 1% of its GDP, ranking 184th out of 191 countries as per WHO. It is not surprising then to contextualize our struggles to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Hunger in a metropolitan hub like Mumbai became a serious problem, especially when the local economy was on a standstill. It affected the lower class, lower caste, and minority communities disproportionately. This was also the case with the implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013 as Gurbir Singh notes. A group of researchers, some from TISS, Mumbai set up an exercise to study the relief efforts and mapped them to get a clear picture about accessibility. Their observations reveal a worrying picture of a modern Indian city like Mumbai, where the poor have been invisible when it comes to establishing a relief operation. It was recently published by Scroll, and the resources have been made public. Their key observation: “There was a disjunction between where informal settlements and industries with a preponderance of daily wage and migrant workers are located, and where services are established.”
However, it offers a limited picture, as the study does not cover private initiatives. Many civil society organizations, like Khaana Chahiye, have conducted operations in some form or the other to provide relief to the marginalized groups in the city. This problem can resonate well with many groups and organizations since there was no ready list available in the public domain where the system compiled a list of shelter homes, relief centres, etc. What is the solution then?
One way to tackle this problem is to conduct a comprehensive mapping exercise in the city, which can help in documentation and compilation of services provided by civil society groups and non-government organizations. Such an exercise has already been started through Khaana Chahiye to map the demand for food in critical pockets of the city. The idea is to establish a permanent system where the most critical communities can receive the necessary nutrition throughout. This extensive exercise would not just be learning from the COVID-19 pandemic but can be developed as a disaster management tool for Mumbai and its neighbouring areas.
A crisis in Mumbai is not a new phenomenon. Every year, there is generally a week during monsoon when the city’s infrastructure is paralyzed. It hampers the availability of essential services too. This pandemic has further exposed the gaps in the struggling system. It is the utmost need of the hour that the system partners with the civil society to ensure Mumbai manages a crisis in a better way. It can start with supporting initiatives like the creation of a comprehensive Hunger Map, which can credit the role of non-government organizations.