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Hunger grows in Mumbai: Working poor now queuing up for free food

Three weeks into the national lockdown, organisations and individuals providing free meals in Mumbai are unanimous: hunger in the financial capital has grown sharply and continues to grow.

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai |
April 16, 2020 3:31:52 am
Volunteers prepare food to be distributed among the poor in Mumbai. (Express Photo)

WHEN volunteers arrived last week at a slum colony in Juhu’s Nehru Nagar, a few dozen households had gone without a single decent meal for at least four days, the children surviving on bits and bobs while out of work adults mulled the indignity of begging for food for their children.

“When we reached with food packets, they fell at our feet, they told us we were like god for them,” said Pathik Muni, who is leading one of several initiatives to feed Mumbai’s hungry.

For a large percentage of the six million people who live in the city’s slums, on pavements and under flyovers, the lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic marks a return to the basic challenge of putting food on the table every day — closed schools mean lakhs of children do not have what was perhaps their only nutritious meal and closed work sites mean overnight destitution.

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Three weeks into the national lockdown, organisations and individuals providing free meals in Mumbai are unanimous: hunger in the financial capital has grown sharply and continues to grow.

Muni, a cybersecurity expert and entrepreneur, started along with Project Mumbai and social activist Ruben Mascarenhas on March 29 and was initially providing 1,200 meals. “Now we are providing 59,000 meals every day, with a team of over 50 volunteers ranging from food industry folk, activists, corporate employees and more. The need increases every day. Apart from migrants, who were suddenly thrown into this situation, even slum dwellers have run out of whatever was stocked up. With no wages for 20 days, they have been added to the list of those going hungry in Mumbai,” Muni said.

Mascarenhas said their initiative liaises with diverse groups to plot a hunger map of Mumbai. “We are crowd-sourcing information of where food is needed, and we are connecting it with supply,” he said.


Muni said they have eight large kitchens, including in top suburban restaurants, and the food industry’s expertise in packaging meals for localities where donors provide them cooked food in vats. An online fundraiser has yielded Rs 10 lakh until now.

Khaanachahiye is serving communities along the Eastern and Western Express Highways, Link Road as well as labour camps in Masjid Bunder, Malad, Chembur and Govandi, where they work in partnership with municipal officials. “Conditions are worse in the stretch from Govandi, Mankhurd up to Mahul,” Muni said. Worried at the absolute absence of nutrition, they decided to add a banana for children, also to break the monotony of khichdi and pulao.

Officials say about five to six lakh people in Mumbai need to be fed daily, but food rights activists say the numbers are much higher.


According to International Labour Organization estimates based on National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, about 60 per cent of wage employees in the country are “casual” workers, compensated for days worked and with irregular work availability. By that math, even assuming that only half of Mumbai’s 4.5 million adult slum dwellers are wage employees, at least one million would be casual workers now struggling with food security.

Residents of roadside shacks along Link Road in Borivali, Meena and Munna Shaikh are waste-pickers, trawling through garbage dumps to find items for recycling. Meena is from Chennai and has lived in Mumbai since childhood, while Munna has roots in Kolkata but grew up in an orphanage in Mumbai. They have three children aged 18 and lower, all in college and school because the entire extended family has pinned its hopes on the children of this inter-community marriage breaking the chain of poverty.

“Now they too are learning to deal with hunger,” said Meena, 35. “We have never earned enough to stock up, we just buy food with what we earn every day. Now, we can’t work, and we’re barely being permitted to continue living at our usual places on the roadside,” said Munna, 42.

The meal from Khaanachahiye is their single food source, sometimes carefully rationed for the evening too. “On most days, we eat only one meal a day. If not for them, we would go hungry,” said Meena.

Though not from Maharashtra, the Shaikhs are not seasonal migrants — they have lived in Mumbai all their lives. Neither Meena nor Munna has a ration card, so they are out of the PDS net. Meena has a Jan Dhan account and is waiting expectantly for the promised Rs 500 — it will be two or three days of happy meals.


In Kurla, Noorbi Shaikh stands outside a busy store, infant daughter balanced on her hip, asking those walking into the store to buy her some groceries. “I live in Kajupada. A few women decided today to try our luck outside grocery stores,” she said. Her husband and she are both daily wagers. Like all other daily wagers, she has no state aid for lost income, and until work can be found again, depends on handouts to feed her children.

In industry hub Dharavi, just before and during the lockdown, long queues have formed for free meal packets.


The Left-affiliated Democratic Youth Federation of India is among those providing free meals, serving communities in Goregaon, Jogeshwari, Powai and Andheri. “We serve more than 4,000 people every day, and the numbers have risen continuously,” said Sanjeev Shamanthul of DYFI-Mumbai. “People who worked hard all their lives are reduced to queuing up for free food.”


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First published on: 16-04-2020 at 03:31:52 am

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