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Indian Express Stories of Strength

Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.

How RPF constables’ bid to feed migrant workers brought all of Vasco on one track

For nearly 50 days after the lockdown commenced, the RPF personnel and station staff were able to develop a food distribution system that ran like clockwork.

July 10, 2020 5:29:51 pm

VASCO: A few days into the second phase of the nationwide ‘unlock’, Goa’s otherwise bustling Vasco railway station is quieter than it has been in months. Ironically, it was in the midst of the lockdown — when passenger trains were suspended, borders were sealed, and shops selling ‘non-essentials’ had downed their shutters — that the South Goa station was buzzing with activity.

During the lockdown, hundreds of migrant workers and their families would line up outside the station three times a day for nearly two months to partake in simple wholesome meals laid out by a group of Railway Protection Force (RPF) constables and a few station employees.

“We knew there were many people around the station who were out of work and without food,” RPF constable Mohan I Rathore said. “All of our staff members contributed what they could — some gave Rs 500, others gave Rs 1,000. We wanted to do everything in our power to help them.”

With the money they collected, they were able to buy basic cooking supplies. For a few days, modest meals of rice and dal were cooked in the tiny kitchen of the station’s IRCTC canteen. Soon, other station employees started to pitch in — loco-pilot Deepak Kumar for instance, began preparing large quantities of vegetable curry at home every morning before leaving for work.

“A banker friend of mine would help me everyday. Initially we were cooking for around 50-70 people. But within a week we had to start preparing double as there were more than 100 people to feed per meal,” Kumar recollected.

Despite a low number of Covid-19 cases in the state at that time, the station staff didn’t want to take any chances. The migrant workers were directed to maintain a few metres distance while waiting in line. Before being served, a thermal scanner was used to check their temperature and a small amount of sanitiser was pumped onto their palms. “We always wore face masks while serving food, to ensure a certain level of safety,” RPF constable Vikramjeet said.

Within a week, RPF personnel had to start preparing double the quantity of food as there were more than 100 people to feed per meal. Photo by Debabrata Nandy

As word spread and the long serpentine queues began to wind around the station, these good samaritans faced their first big hurdle. “We were told to find somewhere else to cook as we were not authorised to use the kitchen at the IRCTC canteen,” Vikramjeet revealed.

This was when a group of pantry-car workers, who cooked and served food onboard passenger trains before the lockdown, volunteered to prepare meals for the growing crowds that thronged the station daily. But without a kitchen to cook in, the volunteers started to feel like they had hit a wall.

It was then that the ingenuity of the station’s staff and the compassion and generosity of Vasco’s residents helped take the initiative to the next level. After the manager of a local HP gas agency donated 16 cylinders to the cause, the station workers were able to set up a makeshift kitchen using an old stove salvaged from a pantry car.

Hunched over the outdoor stove in the blazing heat, the pantry car workers prepared two meals a day. Breakfast was usually simple fare — bread and a cup of tea. Lunch and dinner were a little more elaborate — along with the standard rice, dal and vegetable curry, the workers occasionally received dessert as a special treat.

When Debabrata Nandy — a serving senior sailor in the Indian Navy — learnt about the good work being done at Vasco station, he approached his superiors at Goa Naval Area to support the initiative. Soon, the Navy began providing 20 kg of rice and dal everyday. “Once we got involved, the station employees didn’t have to pay anything from their pocket. But they were all present daily distributing food, rain or shine,” Nandy said.

Lunch and dinner were a little more elaborate — along with the standard rice, dal and vegetable curry, the workers occasionally received dessert as a special treat. Photo by Debabrata Nandy

On a WhatsApp group, aptly named ‘Action Task Force’, Nandy was able to reach out to local business owners, restaurateurs, NGOs and well-meaning Vasco residents who made considerable donations — all in kind. While some opted to prepare and serve a few meals, others donated pulses or vegetables. A local NGO even provided them with reusable plates, to help reduce the amount of waste being produced after every meal.

“The reusable plates were especially useful as they helped us get a sense of how much food to prepare everyday,” Vikramjeet said. The one rule that the station staff worked hard to enforce was that no food was to be wasted. “We urged everyone to serve themselves just as much as they could eat. We never stopped anyone from coming back for second, or even third helpings. We just didn’t want any of the food ending up in the dustbin.”

It was only in May, after Shramik special trains began carrying stranded workers back to their home states, that the RPF personnel and station staff decided to pack up. Their makeshift kitchen was dismantled as lines started to steadily shorten.

For nearly 50 days after the lockdown commenced, the RPF personnel and station staff were able to develop a food distribution system that ran like clockwork. “Everyone had a role to play. Every employee, every volunteer knew what they had to do and did it with utmost dedication— whether it was to maintain social distance or ladling the food onto plates,” RPF constable Vikramjeet remembered with a sense of satisfaction.

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