Mankhurd resident Suraj Singh and his family of three, like many others, depended on community kitchens set up by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to tide over the lockdown-induced economic hardships. As the city slowly tries to open up under the state’s Mission Begin Again, a decision by the civic body to limit or completely shut down the distribution of food kits has come as a setback to many like him, who continue to struggle for work.
Before the lockdown, Singh, who worked as a hawker in the Crawford Market area in South Mumbai, nearly 20 km from his home, earned Rs 400-500 per day. Handing over most of his earnings to his 30-year-old wife, Rinku, the two managed the household expenses on a tight budget, including rent for the room, electricity, water, school fees of two children and monthly cost of Rinku’s medicine for a heart ailment.
When the lockdown was imposed, Singh decided to not leave for their hometown in Uttar Pradesh, as he would either have to continue to pay for the rented room or vacate it, disrupting their two children’s education.
With suburban trains yet to resume, Singh could not travel to work. After making desperate calls to acquaintances, Singh managed to find work in the wholesale market at APMC but work remains irregular.
“I now only get work for two or three days a week. It is not enough to run a house. We still have to depend on others for ration,” Singh said.
The BMC, which was initially distributing food packets and had set up community kitchens in some wards, has stopped the exercise citing lack of demand for it. The BMC had said that it had provided over 1.84 crore food packets between March 30 and May 10 before the exercise was stopped. A team of 16 nodal officers drawn up by the BMC for coordination regarding food and travel for workers in the city has also been disbanded.
An officer said that now only calls for enquiries received for dry ration to the control room or to their personal numbers are forwarded to civic officials for assistance. Sangeeta Hasnale, assistant municipal commissioner, planning department, who is in-charge of the food distribution, said that apart from those enlisted with the BMC for assistance including persons with disabilities, commercial sex workers and over 2,000 families adopted by the civic body as beneficiaries, calls received on the control room are duly attended to.
“The demand for food has reduced now with only 15 calls received seeking dry ration. We forward that to the corporators for further assistance,” Hasnale said, adding that earlier over 1,000 calls were received daily by those stranded in the city during the lockdown.
But, activists say that many including migrant workers who have returned to the city and others like Singh with irregular wages or lost jobs including domestic workers require assistance.
Mohammed Umar Shaikh, a social activist who continues to run a community kitchen in Mandala in the M-East ward — the city’s poorest — says that at least 1,200 people continue to access a meal at the centre daily. “When the lockdown was imposed, we fed around 1,000 people. The number increased to 1,500 after a few weeks when many migrant workers left. Now, the number is again increasing since many have begun returning but are unable to find stable work and those staying here have no savings left. We cannot provide for all the needy but have decided to provide for those who have been facing a lot of difficulty in managing even one meal a day,” Shaikh says.
He adds that with NGOs assisting the kitchen also exhausting their funds over the past five months, keeping the kitchen going may not be possible beyond this month.
During the lockdown, the BMC had also started a platform called Milkar to coordinate with NGOs in the city and avoid duplication of relief work. Farida Lambay, co-founder of NGO Pratham, part of the platform, says that while requests for food have gone down, many continue to require dry ration. “Many groups including domestic workers, migrant workers who have returned remain in financial difficulty. The focus now needs to be on their rehabilitation through providing livelihood opportunities,” she said.
Inadequate coverage of central and state government schemes and lack of identification of the vulnerable and their needs need to be addressed. The flagship scheme under ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ for free ration has led to distribution of only 43 per cent of supplies in the state with officials saying that delays are caused due to issues in identifying those eligible. Experts say that the administration can use community-based knowledge through locals or NGOs who ran community kitchens in specific areas during the lockdown or collect data in collaboration with organisations to identify rehabilitation needs of those in crisis.
“There is now a need for a sensitive assessment to identify specific households and then nuanced modes of aiding them, which could be through distribution of ration or cash transfers as many are burdened with the backlog of unpaid rent, school fees, expenses to undertake journeys back home and now to return,” said Amita Bhide, dean of the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).