A mosque and a gurudwara have come together in south Delhi’s Kalu Sarai neighbourhood to feed migrant workers driven to hunger by the COVID-19 lockdown. Every morning since 30 March, Harbans Singh and Surendar Singh, two volunteers from the Gurudwara Shri Singh Sabha in Kalu Sarai village, have been going to the nearby mosque, at 9 am. By that time, Aslam Chaudhury and a small group of people from the neighbourhood have already brought out a bag of rice from the storeroom, started cutting vegetables and sorting masalas. Onions, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, carrots and green peas have to be peeled and chopped, the ginger and garlic have to be ground in mixers into a fine paste and the oil needs to be readied. The menu remains broadly the same every day—mixed vegetable pulao, though on a day-to-day basis some of the vegetables may change. Soya bean chunks replace carrots and beans, or instead they prepare khichri with dal. “Rice is easy to cook and pack and the pulao is nutritious,” Chaudhury said. It needs to be so, he said, if the aim is to feed the hungry in slum clusters or labourers scattered in across Delhi who have will not have any other meal for the day.
On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19. Reports started emerging the following day, of thousands of labourers beginning to walk hundreds of miles from urban centres such as Delhi and Mumbai, to their homes in neighbouring states. In such cities, people without fixed incomes—daily-wage labourers, residents of slums and blue-collar workers—saw their wages drying up as businesses, factories and small-scale manufacturing units closed down. News reports suggest a crisis of unemployment and hunger unfolding in these cities. The Delhi government has since announced some steps, such as setting up 500 hunger relief centres to feed 4 lakh people and starting hunger helplines. In several parts of the national capital, civil-society groups, individuals and religious institutions such as temples, mosques and gurudwaras are struggling to take up the responsibility of feeding thousands of workers. These are efforts that lack the scale and reach that the government can provide.
“The situation is very bad,” Chaudhury said when I met him on 31 March, at the mosque. “I have been getting desperate calls from Mehrauli, Hauz Khas village, Begumpur”—all localities of south Delhi—“for food.” Chaudhury’s kitchen started on 26 March, two days after Modi made the lockdown announcement. He runs a mess and a catering business and is familiar with the process of cooking in large quantities. He had initially hired some people to cook for the migrants but was disappointed with the food they made. Speaking of the langar at the gurudwara nearby, he said, “The langar is shut, so I asked them if I could borrow their vessels. They agreed.” Chaudhury said the gurudwara sent him two large vessels—a cauldron that can cook 25 kilograms of rice and a smaller one that can hold up to 10 kilograms. The gurudwara also sent two cooks, who could help Chaudhury prepare the food. “What we are doing here is not very different from what we do in the langar,” Harbans Singh, the langar supervisor who had come along with Surendar Singh, the cook, said. “It is god’s grace and we will do seva”—community service— “as long as the lockdown continues.”