On the evening of March 22, as India observed ‘janata curfew’, a phone number began to circulate over WhatsApp that promised to deliver food to the doorsteps of the needy in Ahmednagar. It belonged to an engineer called Harjeet Singh Wadhwa, who had formed an impromptu group called Langar Seva Group with half a dozen friends.
“In a couple of hours, we had 350 people messaging for food. How could we deliver food to 350 doorsteps? It was difficult but we managed by calling in help on all fronts, from preparing food to transporting it,” says Wadhwa.
By the next morning, the message had gone viral. The number of requests began to increase — from 1,350 calls on March 23 to 5,000 on April 1. Since the first food packet was delivered to a patient at Booth Hospital in Ahmednagar, the group has delivered 416,900 food packets — making it one of the most extensive food security efforts in the state during the pandemic.
“People kept joining us to help, from individuals to gurudwaras, Lions Club, the Jain, Gujarati, Sindhi Committees and Punjabi Samaj. We did not have a plan and took each day as it came,” he adds. The group expanded to 65, with members such as Prashant Munot, Prithpalsingh Dhuppar, Kishore Munot, Sunny Wadhwa, Rahul Bajaj, Raja Narang, Sunil Chhajed, Ajay Punjabi and Kailash Nawlani.
The food crisis was one of the biggest problems of the pandemic, with students, travelers, migrant workers and senior citizens among the most vulnerable. As businesses shut down, daily-wage workers and their families were left without money for food for themselves and their children. Students were stranded in hostels with the kitchen closed. The grocery shops were either shut or had run out of stock. Housing societies closed their gates to house help.
Initially, volunteers from Langar Seva Group supplied food if a caller lived near them. As the numbers increased, an office at Top Up petrol pump, run by Janak Ahuja, was used as a collection point. When the migrant crisis blew up across the country, the demands from groups of weak and hungry travellers soared. The group stationed volunteers at thoroughfares through the day and night to cater to those walking hundreds of km home to their villages.
“We needed a big kitchen and a big place. Additional SP Sagar Patil and Deputy SP Sandeep Mitke gave us the Ahmednagar Police lawns for operations. Food began to be cooked in-house at Ahmednagar Police lawns by three chefs — Karan Dhuppar, Rohit Tekwani and Tony Kukreja, who had joined the Sewa voluntarily. Thousands of packets of rice and vegetables began to be sent out as volunteers on scooters and personal vehicles masked up and spread across the city,” says Wadhwa.
”We have also been serving ‘mansoora’ and kunani kadhak for the past 70 days at 13 locations in Ahmednagar, to the tune of 200 litres per day, to increase immunity,” Wadhwa adds.
A number of labourers from the city could cook at home but had no supplies, so the group distributed 2,300 ration kits — each with 18 kg of provisions to last a family of four a month — in the remotest areas, including Harishchandragad, a tribal area.
With Maharashtra emerging as one of the states worst affected by Covid-19 in the country, the group decided to start the Guru Arjan Dev Covid Care Centre only for women, where they supply free food, arrange games as well as organise yoga sessions for patients.
“When the Shramik trains began to leave from Ahmednagar, we used to get calls for food. In all, we have handed out 2,300 boxes of water bottles and 11,000 food packets. Then, the buses started plying and that brought more instances of hunger and thirst,” says Wadhwa.
Once, they received a call that a train was arriving from Amritsar and 1,200 packets of food were needed in 40 minutes. “We called the station and found that the train was running late. By the time, it arrived an hour later, we had water bottles and 1,200 packets of cooked food ready. The travellers said they had last eaten in Amritsar and didn’t have even water after that. A few people cried.; several more took selfies with us,” says Wadhwa.
Sometimes, the demand was for more than the 7,800 packets of cooked food they could supply per day. “At those times, we handed out farsaan, chips and water, among other items,” he adds.
Hidden aspects of society revealed themselves, such as a manager with a bank who requested food to be delivered to her every day. “I called and asked why she needed food and she said that she had never learnt to cook. She could not even light the stove. As her cook could not come during the lockdown, she was dependent on us for food. She readily ate whatever we gave and, every week, donated large sacks of rice,” says Wadhwa.
Today, the work continues at a frenetic pace.
The group is also working with schools to spot children who were regular in school but dropped out after online classes started. “We have helped out such children by enabling them to continue studies by giving them mobile phones as well as study material. This is a part of our effort to make a difficult year a little easier to bear,” says Wadhwa.
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