As Tripura grapples with the economic devastation wreaked by COVID-19, a group of good Samaritans has come forward to help the most vulnerable – children in orphanages, people in old age homes, streetkids and destitute slumdwellers.
Mohamarir Heshel, a social organisation, is holding langars in different locations, to make sure such people manage to have at least one healthy meal a week.
While the state government has rolled out several measures for street vendors, hawkers and other urban poor, the limited benefits have left many wanting.
According to Public Distribution System (PDS) records, Tripura has 5.79 thousand ‘poor’ families, including 1.09 lakh Antodaya Annapurna Yojana (AAY) families and 4.70 lakh priority group or BPL families. Also, Tripura has 19,69 migrant workers, many of whom have returned to their home states during the lockdown, 59 slums in Agartala city alone and hundreds of domicile brick kiln workers, hawkers and vendors.
Mohamarir Heshel, which literally translates to ‘pandemic kitchen’, is trying to reach those who have fallen through the cracks of government schemes. The group has been formed by the coming together of college and university students, teachers, film directors, journalists, writers, etc.
Sourab Chakraborty, a drama and theatre post-graduate student at Rabindra Bharati University, came across community kitchens at Jadavpur in West Bengal during the first few months of the lockdown. Chakraborty, who hails from Bagaan Bazaar village of Tripura’s Khowai district, returned home as soon as Tripura lifted ban on inter-state transportation as part of Unlock 2.0, and gathered a group of 30-odd like-minded people who wanted to make a change.
The group is now feeding children in orphanages in and around Agartala city, along with surveying slums, villages and tribal hamlets to open their Heshel.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Chakraborty said, “During dark days like these, the fundamental necessity of people is food; other daily needs come later. I saw langars at Jadavpur and this idea came to me.”
He teamed up with Nilotpal Sarkar, an advocate practising with the High Court of Tripura, writer, litterateur and teacher Asoke Deb, journalist Nandita Dutta, Dr. Tanuj Sarkar, lecturers, and social workers to start his community kitchen experiment in Tripura.
“Many people have lost jobs during the lockdown and there’s no alternative work available. If we can arrange nutritious food for them at least one day per week, we feel it can help,” he said.
At these langars, people sit at safe distance as per physical distancing regulations and get a meal of rice, dal, chicken, vegetable and a citrus fruit, like mosambi. In some cases, they also provide free clothes.
Kalyan Dasgupta, a retired government servant who runs an orphanage called Arabinda Ashram at Aralia in the outskirts of Agartala city, hosted Mohmarir Heshel on October 1.
Speaking to this publication, he said, “We run this ashram for helpless children. Six of us retired government employees started it in 2010. Five of us are still alive. Mohamarir Heshel came to provide food to our children. It is a noble job they are doing”.
The ashram, like others Mohamarir Heshel is looking to feed, doesn’t receive any government support or large private funding.
Earlier in March, the state government had appealed to Self Help Groups (SHG) or public service foundations to set up community kitchens and provide coked food packets for the urban homeless poor.
Urban Development Director Dr. Shailesh Kumar Yadav, who is also West Tripura District Magistrate now, had asked Municipal Commissioners, Chief Executive Officers (CEO), and Executive Officers of 20 urban local bodies of the state to set up kitchens to prepare cooked food like ‘khichdi’ at a single location in every urban body, and rope in ‘any good Area level federation (ALF) or Self Help group (SHG)’ for the job.
On its part, Tripura government had earlier rolled out a Rs 233 crore project to deal with problems arising out of COVID-19, especially for the poor and homeless. Some of these benefits were rolled out on a one-time basis while some were given for three months.
The state government paid Rs 1,000 from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to 8,666 identified hawkers, street vendors and others dependent on such odd jobs. The benefits came shortly after the government allocated two months’ free ration for Antodaya Annapurna Yojana (AAY) and BPL consumers and subsidized ration for APL consumers in the Public Distribution System (PDS). Those who don’t have any ration card received 8 kg rice and some other essentials from SDM offices across Tripura.
Tripura reported its first COVID death in April, and has since seen 286 deaths and 26,362 coronavirus cases.
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