Many pitch in to feed the hungry

Businessman Shishpal Singh was still stirring vegetables and rice at his Mumbai apartment block when migrant workers laid off in the coronavirus lockdown began queuing nearby, desperate for a hot meal.

The men had travelled to the western Indian city from the southern state of Tamil Nadu to lay gas pipelines, but when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown a fortnight ago, they were left stranded, unable to work or get home.

One of the men, Mr Shekhar, 40, said: "We don't know where the contractor lives. He abandoned us when the lockdown was announced. We sent all our earnings home. How do we feed ourselves?"

The men got help from Mr Singh, who provided them with hot food.

The 44-year-old, who has a studio rental business, is among many Indians who are helping the less fortunate in the country of 1.3 billion people, which is the scene of the world's largest lockdown.

India has relatively low numbers of coronavirus cases compared with other countries. But there are fears it could quickly spread through the densely populated country, where millions live cheek-by-jowl in crowded urban slums.

The strict quarantine measures have created a major problem - widespread hunger - as hundreds of millions lost their livelihoods overnight.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that millions of poor rural Indians were working in cities when the lockdown was announced and all public transport shut down, leaving them stranded far from home, often with no food, money or shelter.

State governments are running kitchens and have promised a steady supply of grains. But access has been hampered by the severe restrictions on people's movement.

"There are tens of thousands who are unable to access these kitchens because they are simply too far," said Mr Dharmendra Kumar, secretary of Jan Pahal, a charity running community kitchens in New Delhi.

"Right now, we are feeding the poorest, but we expect the food queues to grow as low-income homes also run out of stocks." It is not just the wealthy who are helping out.

Mr Suresh Chauhan usually sells his food on the streets of Delhi, but, since the crisis, he has been giving it away, using the courtyard of a Sikh temple.

"I am a migrant myself and have walked the streets of Delhi hawking my food on a cycle before I could set up a food cart," he said.

"I can sit at home with my family, but I know what it is like to be hungry. I just felt I had to do this and help in my own way."

Mr Khushroo Poacha, a superintendent with the Central Railways' commercial department in Nagpur, is feeding thousands without collecting any cash. The Parsi is using his personal and professional contacts through the social media to collect food.

He has managed to collect food and aid material worth more than Rs4 million ($75,000), which has benefited more than 6,000 families.

Mr Poacha asks people to help through a series of WhatsApp groups and his websites www.sevakitchen.org, www.indianblooddonors.com and www.donatekart.com.

"People make their contributions, which are routed to my supplier and I pick up the stuff required," he said. "There is no monetary involvement at any stage.

"We have set up 21 Seva Kitchens, mostly in cancer or children's hospitals or schools where people can get good, nutritious food absolutely free. We have also installed 'Neki Ka Pitara' (Fridge of Kindness) at these locations for the poor and needy."

The Seva Kitchens, each serving around 3,000 meals daily, are operating in Nagpur, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Palwal (Haryana), Sawantwadi, Thane, Navi Mumbai (all in Maharashtra).

In Kovalam, a fishing hamlet near Chennai, Ms M. Sarala, a mother of two, has been cooking and feeding about 15 people daily, reported The New Indian Express

When asked what made her do it, the woman said the coronavirus has affected everyone, more so people who are out on the streets, and she is worried that they are going hungry.

"On normal days, there are hotels, but during the lockdown, they starve," she said.

In Thiruvnanthapuram, the capital of Kerala, a police team has distributed more than 30,000 food packets among the poor. "We knew we had to reach out to people who were in need," said Inspector-General of Police (IGP) P. Vijayan. "We decided to do our best for those who were not able to feed themselves". The team got support from various NGOs and individuals and began preparing food at a kitchen in an auditorium in the city. "About 4,440 food kits were also distributed at slums and labour camps," said IGP Vijayan.

The police team is also providing food packets daily to patients and bystanders at the Medical College, General Hospital and the Women's and Children's Hospital and 125 bedridden patients in the city.

Reuters, Indo-Asian News Service

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