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.

Local cops remember the forgotten, with a daily lunch van

For little Tanima, seeing a whole egg on the plate, just for her, is something very special. She looks around to check if there has been some mistake. “Go on, it’s all yours,” the police personnel serving the hot rice and egg curry assures the 11-year-old.

May 14, 2020 5:08:03 pm

Despite the masks, the smiles are visible. The lines near the eyes are a big giveaway. The motley group of people — women carrying small children, and men bent with age — have noticed the green police van come their way. This spot at Kachari Math, near the Barasat railway station, is where they get their lunch every noon.

The prolonged lockdown has had a disastrous impact on India’s daily wagers and the homeless. With no way to earn a living, most of them are struggling to find their next meal. But near Kolkata, the local police have been helping the hapless by arranging one proper meal everyday.

As the local trains stopped, people living on station platforms and along the tracks, and those directly dependent on the trains have been finding it extremely difficult to survive. While initially the West Bengal Police distributed rations and essential supplies to help them, it didn’t solve their problem entirely. So, the police personnel took things a step further and decided to provide cooked meals to 100 persons daily. The personnel of Barasat District Police have been at it for well over a month now.

“I didn’t know what to do. My husband is a rickshaw puller, he has no earnings now. I thought we would all starve to death,” says Mini Mondal, who has a 11-month-old son to care for. “But the police babu came and gave us some rice, potato and soaps and asked if we were doing okay. A few days later, they said they will cook for us too,” the 28-year-old remembers, explaining how saving on cooking fuel for even a day is such a big deal for her family.

The daily queues are a study in discipline. Everyone maintains the social distance needed, though they might not be familiar with the term itself. There is no pushing or showing and everyone is calm. They then sit on the ground, with a reasonable distance from the next person, ready to be served what might still be the only meal of the day for at least some of them.

west bengal police, barasat police helping homeless, covid 19, coronavirus lockdown india, kolkata police helping homeless, indian express, stories of strength series, indian express covid series A group of West Bengal police personnel in Barasat have been feeding around 100 homeless people since the lockdown began. Express Photo by Shashi Ghosh

For little Tanima, seeing a whole egg on the plate, just for her, is something very special. She looks around to check if there has been some mistake. “Go on, it’s all yours,” the police personnel serving the hot rice and egg curry assures the 11-year-old. Tanima is thrilled. The closest she’s come to this is the omelette curry her mother makes so that everyone in the family can share it.

For 70-year-old Purnima Devi, the meals which many would consider basic is nothing short of a feast. “I’m used to what food stall vendors at the railway station give me — never more than roti and sabji. But the police didi gave me four items to eat… I would have been happy with just a bit of rice and dal,” the woman says, rubbing the tears from her eyes and pointing to a woman officer serving lunch. With ladles full of dal, sukto and egg curry, the cops ensure everyone gets their fair share.

west bengal police, barasat police helping homeless, covid 19, coronavirus lockdown india, kolkata police helping homeless, indian express, stories of strength series, indian express covid series The daily queues are a study in discipline. Everyone maintains the social distance needed, though they might not be familiar with the term itself. Express Photo Shashi Ghosh

“At this time of crisis, now more than ever we must take care of the needy and the poor,” reasons Avijit Banerjee, Superintendent of Police, Barasat Police District. “We didn’t want people to clutter, so we thought the best way was to serve people on the go. So, after the food is cooked by some of our staff at one of our institution buildings, we take it through the main road and serve whenever we spot someone on the streets,” the IPS officer explains.

The police team ensures the food is cooked and served in a hygienic condition. The van starts its daily circuit near Doltala More in Madhyamgram area before moving towards the Kachari Math in Barasat. By the end of the trip, it covers a 5km stretch. They also offer a bottle of drinking water too. Soaps and masks are also distributed properly and everyone made aware why they are important now.

west bengal police, barasat police helping homeless, covid 19, coronavirus lockdown india, kolkata police helping homeless, indian express, stories of strength series, indian express covid series The meal served includes rice, egg curry and a vegetable preparation. The police team ensures the food is cooked and served in a hygienic condition. Express Photo Shashi Ghosh

“Not everyday is the same. The response has been overwhelming. Some days, we ran out of food before we reached the Math, because we found more people to feed on the way,” the officer told indianexpress.com over the telephone. “But we ensured these people didn’t go hungry, so we came back with a second round later. We might not be able to do a lot, but at least we want to ensure that they get one complete meal a day,” Banerjee adds.

Paid for by the Police Welfare Fund, the project is now feeding more people every day. “Some know we will come, so they wait for us daily in a disciplined way. There are little children and old people here… who will cook for them even if we supply dry rations. This way they know they will not go hungry,” reasons constable Arnab Roy Chowdhury who is a regular on these trips.

west bengal police, barasat police helping homeless, covid 19, coronavirus lockdown india, kolkata police helping homeless, indian express, stories of strength series, indian express covid series On some days, the team runs out of food as the number of people seeking a meal increases. Express Photo Shashi Ghosh

All of 85, Sukhen Basu has lived along the tracks for ages. His daily meal is paid for from what he earns begging in the area. “When the shops closed and my income dried up, I was sure I’d starve to death. I thought the cops were coming to ask me to leave the area, but instead they gave me food, and some liquid to rub on my hands before eating,” remembers the elderly man. “It’s nice they did not forget us.”

Also in this series: Temporary job, permanent hero: How a safai karamchari saved the day at an Assam hospital