A loss of daily wages due to COVID-19 restrictions leaves the urban poor dependent on charity.

A woman hands out packets of food in Mumbai during COVID-19 restrictions Khaana Chahiye
news Coronavirus Wednesday, April 21, 2021 - 16:17

Barely a week into Maharashtra's current partial lockdown, Jamna Rathod made a phone call early on Sunday morning. "People here have begun to go hungry again," she told Brinelle D'Souza, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences' Centre for Health and Mental Health. Could D'Souza please arrange for a daily supply of khichdi as she had done in the 2020 lockdown?  

D’Souza, a key member of ‘Mumbai Responds’, an informal network of individuals and civil society organisations that came together during the national lockdown of 2020 to undertake relief work and advocacy, said the group is now being reactivated. As a ferocious second wave of COVID-19 in Maharashtra forced another round of closures, mini-lockdowns in various districts and then lockdown-like curbs from April 14, pleas for help have begun to slowly trickle in, mainly from those who depend on daily earnings for food and survival. 

On April 20, Maharashtra recorded 62097 new COVID-19 cases, taking the total number of cases to 39,60,359, with a mortality rate of 1.56%, higher than the all-India mortality rate of 1.18%. 

As the majority of Mumbai region’s approximately seven million slum-dwellers, most of them migrants from other states, find themselves struggling to access subsidised food-grain under the Public Distribution System (PDS), once again, organisations working with the urban poor across Maharashtra are hunkering down to tackle what they expect will be months of hunger. Unlike the 2020 lockdown, the fair price stores are still functional, staff for unloading trucks is available unlike last summer, and movement of people is not completely banned. But the most marginalised, including the homeless, poorly paid daily wage labourers and transgender community, are already down to one meal a day.       

Jamna Rathod lives in an informal settlement around Vashi Naka in Mumbai’s central suburbs, and travels 10 km every day to purchase and sell clothes against the old utensils she collects from households. The markets she frequents, in Mulund and Thane, have been shut since April 10. By her estimation, nearly 8,000 residents of the slums around Vashi Naka depended on food handouts during the previous lockdown. 

“The area is full of people who have to earn every day and others who are out of work now. There are hawkers of small items or clothes, a large number of domestic workers and construction workers. Most are without work since the restrictions began,” she said. Several hundreds in this region do not have ration cards, Rathod said, and others are trying to get their expired cards reactivated now.   

Credit: Khaana Chahiye

According to D’Souza, the welfare measures announced by the Chief Minister before the imposition of the current curbs fall short on account of being restricted to certain categories of registered workers and ration card holders, despite the fact that very large numbers of migrants are not PDS beneficiaries. The free ‘Shiv Bhojan’ meals Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced will also not reach a sizable percentage of the poor. “Two lakh free meals a day in a state as large as Maharashtra means the most vulnerable will be left out,” she said. 

The Shiv Bhojan thali, the Shiv Sena’s version of Tamil Nadu’s Amma Canteen, offered subsidised meals at Rs 10 at about 900 centres across Maharashtra. The price was reduced to Rs 5 per meal during the 2020 lockdown and the meal is now available free of cost.      

 “I don’t have any idea where the nearest Shiv Bhojan centre is,” said Surekha Jadhav, a domestic worker in suburban Mumbai’s Kapaswadi slum and a single mother to two teenage girls. Even if she had the information, she could hardly queue up with two young girls for a free meal, she said. From working as a cook and domestic worker at a handful of homes in 2019, Jadhav spent nearly five months with no work or wages during the 2020 lockdown as apartment complexes preferred not to permit staff to enter. During that period, she depended almost entirely on charity for groceries. A native of Khuldabad in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, Jadhav does not own a PDS ration card — she could never complete the required documentation.       

Mukta Srivastava, Maharashtra convenor of the nationwide Anna Adhikaar Abhiyaan or right to food campaign, said efforts to universalise portability of the ration card remain incomplete. “The One Nation-One Ration Card” (ONORC) scheme is on one hand not implemented everywhere, and on the other hand there continue to remain glitches ranging from Aadhaar seeding difficulties to biometric data mismatches,” she said. 

The One Nation One Ration Card programme was launched in 2019, to ensure food security for migrant workers and their families as guaranteed by the National Food Security Act, 2013, and other state schemes. Srivastava said that while the scheme envisioned using technology to allow beneficiaries to access their entitled subsidised grain at any Fair Price Shop, Mumbai’s poor remain unaware of the procedures to be followed.   

According to data from the state government, since the inception of the ONORC up to January 2021, only 4,381 ration card holders from Maharashtra were able to avail their foodgrain entitlement from other states. And just 609 ration card holders from other states could avail their food grain from fair price shops in Maharashtra. A report on workers by ActionAid Association India released in August 2020 said only 44% of migrant workers they surveyed were able to access rations under the PDS from anywhere during the first lockdown. 

“But apart from the portability issues that must be ironed out, what the poor require is rations for non-card holders too, at least amid the current crisis. Every ward in every big city must have food or ration banks,” Srivastava said.  

The Maharashtra government, a coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s former ally Shiv Sena with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, has until now been shy of terming the new restrictions a ‘lockdown’ but has been forced to keep tightening the state-wide curbs since they were first imposed on April 5, going from night curfew to day-long imposition of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. A week into the current restrictions, on April 20, the Cabinet of ministers discussed whether a full lockdown may be unavoidable as the curbs failed to slow the spread of the virus.     

Maharashtra’s COVID-19 cases have grown sharply over the past month, going from less than 25 lakh cases on March 20 to nearly 40 lakh cases now. Active cases have trebled, from a little over 2.15 lakh cases on March 20 to more than 6.8 lakh cases, overwhelming medical infrastructure. The worst-affected districts have already imposed extremely stringent curbs. In Mumbai, even stores selling food items will be open only until 12 noon from the current week, while in Aurangabad all stores have been ordered to shut at 1 pm. For daily income-earners, the curbs will translate into further difficulties accessing food.

D’Souza pointed out that the Census 2011 data pegs the number of homeless in Mumbai at nearly 50,000, a number that would have grown sharply in the last decade. “The municipality should engage with civil society organisations that have worked historically with Mumbai’s urban poor to make meaningful interventions to ensure the homeless do not go hungry,” she said.   

Anil Hebbar of Helping Hands Charitable Trust and a handful of others together donated more than 20,000 ration kits across the Mumbai region during the last lockdown. “This time, Youth Feed India and Helping Hands are coming together to reach out to the most marginalised or neglected communities — sex workers, transgender, daily-wagers,” Hebbar said. They are starting with 5,000 emergency ration kits. “A lot of people have been asking for ration,” he said, “though it’s not such a desperate situation yet. If the lockdown-like restrictions are extended, then there will be a real hunger crisis.” Hebbar has set up a fundraiser but said the number of donors is significantly lower than during the 2020 lockdown. 

Khaana Chahiye, which began serving packed meals to slum clusters, homeless people along Mumbai’s arterial roads and stranded migrants in April 2020, has gone on to provide more than 46 lakh meals and 20,000 grocery kits since. The group, comprising more than 200 volunteers, was started by Aam Aadmi Party leader Ruben Mascarenhas, cyber-security expert Pathik Muni, hotelier Neeti Goyal and others. “We are continuing our operations, and will continue providing meals as long as there is a need,” said Mascarenhas. 

Not everyone who has a ration card is able to access adequate food either.   

Aparna Parab, 38, a native of Kankavli in the Konkan, has been able to collect her allotted quantity of rice and wheat but like almost everyone else in her neighbourhood of Lallubhai Compound in Mumbai’s Mankhurd area, she has taken on large debts during the lockdown months. The domestic worker was without work for five months and found employment as a temporary housekeeper only in April, a one-month gig. Her husband, who worked as a company executive’s driver, first lost his job in April 2020 and then suffered a paralytic stroke in August 2020. “I have loans totalling more than Rs 1 lakh. Whatever little I earn will now go straight towards repayments,” she said. With no money for her daughters’ school fees, she said she certainly doesn’t hope to afford sugar, tea, milk, vegetables or meat any time in the foreseeable future.

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