Sharing Food, Sharing Company

How to organise community kitchens and food distribution in a constantly changing environment where lives get disrupted by starvation threats, job losses, and uncertain state decisions regarding who is allowed to move amidst a pandemic and who is not.

by Maria Pomohaci, Worker’s Dhaba New Delhi

I

I worked as a volunteer before, but this experience was different from everything. It emerged out of a moment of crisis. Activists, professors and students came together as they were concerned about the unfolding situation. Some people already knew each other, some did not. It probably helped that we chose the North campus of Delhi University as a locality to meet. It is really impressive, most of the students come everyday to support the community kitchen. We hired three cooks to assist us, so we attempted to create an inter-class, inter-caste community with people from different regions working side by side. 

We started our first Dhaba couple of days later after  the lockdown was announced.. At the beginning, we did not know how things should go on, we had to learn it all on the spot. The food was not the best, it was sticky, mostly it was rice mixed with dal, we did not know exactly how to pack properly  and we also had to organise our supplies of masks, gloves – step by step we figured it all out. For example, which oil would be best to cook such a great amount of food, or which rice variety was the best, which channa, which spices we should use… Plus, most of the migrant workers who came were from North India so they told us that they were not used to eating so much rice each day. They preferred rotis or puris so we tried to provide that instead, or to at least supply atta so that they could prepare rotis themselves. This is how we came to develop our daily menus based on the budget we had. Since we opened up two more Dhabas, I usually end up going to the one we started about 24 days later in Subhash Colony. But whenever I return to our initial Dhaba in North campus, our kitchen looks like a perfectly attuned orchestra. Everything works so smoothly, it looks exactly like in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, you don’t even have to think about your task while you do it, because all the tasks fit so neatly into each other and because everyone knows their roles so well now. One person is responsible for opening the bag, the next one to fill in the rice, then afterwards someone fills in the vegetables and so on. It works best with 12 people, but sometimes we are only six, then everything takes a little longer. All these packets are collected and get distributed in the evening, mostly by the professors and others. 

Before we opened up a second Dhaba, we also started delivering dry rations. But with an increasing number of tasks, we also needed to expand our storage facilities. Initially we had stocked all the material at one professor’s place who stays in a neighbourhood with other faculty members of Delhi University. But then the neighbours called the police on her finding it suspicious that there were so many people going in and out of her house during the lockdown.  To create no further troubles for her, we found a community centre to store our dry rations. We received these goods in huge bulks which meant we had to measure them and make individual packages. 

II

In the second location, most people had worked as cooks in the hospitality sector before the lockdown. Some of them are chefs, some of them are assistant cooks or waiters with a lot of them also working in banquet halls for weddings. When we talked to them they said: We are not so much in need of food, there are some people who are in a much more dire condition than us – in the ragpicker colony across the railway tracks. So they decided that they wanted to cook not only for themselves, but also for the others. As volunteers, they are mostly self-organising their kitchen including inviting volunteers from the ragpicker community to be part of the cooking activities as well.  So it is interesting that in a moment of crisis, these caste stigmas related to food preparation seemed to become lifted. There was also a lot of inter-religious exchange and women are highly involved in the processes of preparation and distributions. Teenagers would assist as well in getting out the food into the colony. There is a lot of cooperation in cooking together and in comparison with the first Dhaba, you can really see that these are professionals. They are paying meticulous attention to the amount of spices to put, always adding jheera into the rice and knew exactly how to organise a kitchen for such a large number of people. During the ramadan we provided two bananas, dates and roohafza, because there are many Muslims living in that area. There was also a huge feast with halva and other sweets to celebrate the breaking of the fast. 

Before we opened up the second location, there was a lot of talk within our group whether we should focus on delivery rather than opening up separate kitchens. We decided against that because we wanted to maintain our emphasis on not only providing food, but also offering a space around the kitchen to meet and community exchange even under difficult circumstances like these. We did not want to become a catering organisation. 

Still, we received many messages of people in need of food, and we also ventured out on the streets to find out where people would require help. We got in touch with three main groups in other locations, one from Madhya Pradesh, one from Rajasthan and the third one religious group from Maharashtra. However, the feedback we received was that they were much more in need of dry rations than of cooked food. This also worked well for us, since we would only provide dinner due to the long process of cooking and distributing. As they are staying closer to the main road , they have access to cooked food through other organisations who are distributing food on those larger junctions and they may have also organised access to cooking facilities by themselves. One of the main demands they had was soap, because they had no money to buy that even when shops were open – it is surprising how such basic needs were not fulfilled by any of the authorities.

The religious group was very worried about their cows and that they would die of starvation if they could not afford any fodder. One of our organisers, located a donor who was able to provide hay so we could take care of distributing that as well. 

During that phase, we reached out to those other groups as well which were providing help. Of course you also have political groups as well as businessmen or community leaders organising food provisions, but most volunteer organisations are simply activists like us who were really concerned about the circumstances and want to do something, even if it happens on a small scale. We did not want them to believe that it was the go who was sending the food. When the government had announced that there were provisions of dry rations, there were many applications from the neighbourhoods we were operating as well. So when we arrived there during this earlier period, people thought that we were actually sent by the government due to their application for rations, but we told them that we were private actors. 

Another major part of food is further distributed through ashrams, gurudwaras and mosques or other religious institutions. For a few days we got a donation of 3000  rotis from a gurudwara which we accepted with open arms, because it is a very time consuming process to prepare rotis on a large scale and they had a roti machine. 

ll. When we sent out our flyers and calls for donations, sometimes people replied by sending us information about their own relief projects. Even though there is no formal coordination between all those varying initiatives, this is how we understood that it would probably be the best for us to focus on North Delhi so that all areas of the city could be covered evenly. 

III

Right from the beginning of the lockdown, Naveen, another organiser from our group, had been wanting to set up a kitchen in the industrial area of Wazirpur. Being a working class neighbourhood, there was a huge demand for food there, probably greater than in Central Delhi. But the problem was finding a place and it took some time until Naveen got permission to set up a community kitchen in the canteen of an educational institution. The cooking and distribution is completely self-organised by people from Wazirpur. Whereas in other locations, we cook food for the neighbourhood and then also distribute packages outside of it, this is not the case in Wazirpur. The demand is so high that in this kitchen, they only cook for the area itself. For example, roughly 40 out of 800 packages in North Campus are getting delivered to the adjoining localities. In Subhash Colony, they also cook for themselves, the ragpickers colony and the three groups from Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh plus another settlement of ragpickers under the Pubjabi Flyover. Instead, in Wazirpur you can see long queues of people waiting for the food because everything gets consumed right on the spot. However, recently there have been rumours that the kitchen may have to be closed again because if the lockdown ends on June 8th as planned, they might need the kitchen back. 

The desperation is so high that for many the calculation is to either die of the disease or of hunger. Nevertheless, we are very concerned about transmitting the virus through our food distribution. Therefore, we have clearly divided people responsible for cooking and those who usually do distributions. We are only delivering with gloves, and whoever packs the food is maintaining constant disinfecting procedures. However, especially now with cases rising immensely in Delhi, we are worried that we might spread it without showing symptoms, thereby endangering those with weakened immune systems, without many means to afford hospital treatment. There are reports of people arriving in Bihar from Delhi with one in four migrants carrying the disease due to the degrading travelling conditions. 

IV

Food may not be enough. One week  – I call it the “horrible” week – I saw three accidents of people crossing the streets and being hit by a car. We took some of  them to the hospital. The driver, a police inspector, wanted to run away when we came. We were able to assist them at the hospital but we were unable to provide them with cash, for reasons of accountability. Maybe cash would actually be an important additional support, not only to cover medical expenses but also for other occuring emergencies. But it seems that cash programmes could become more regular now in the next phase of the pandemic. We are trying to assess what people would like to see to happen, which expectations they have on employers, state and society, but this is still an ongoing survey. 

The community  kitchen in Subhash Colony has shifted, because the volunteers started getting odd jobs  (heavy loader, cleaner, construction worker), even if not in the hospitality or catering sector. Although there is currently much talk about reopening the economy, they are expecting the wedding season only to restart in February 2021, which means they are expecting not to get their previous jobs back until then. Through this change in locality, there is also a new set of volunteers who started working in the kitchen now. Some of them were the people to whom we gave dry ration kits to, others had heard about us from friends of their friends and got on board. 

Today (04/06/2020) we had to close our kitchen in Delhi University, because we were located in the yard of one college  and they signalled us that with rising cases in the city, the authorities would like the spot to be vacated again to prevent so many people passing through the college gates. Even if the university is not about to open up soon. We already have a new spot from where we operate.

 Many migrant workers have left Delhi, and we have been trying to get involved in arranging transport facilities, like buses, train tickets, cars. For some people who were not living close to the train stations, those government-provided tickets were not an option, so our main focus was to help them reach the buses organized by other activist groups. It is not really clear what will happen, whether people are intending to return to Delhi. People who had taken trains and buses back home may find it difficult to come back to the city. Only if trains started to run regularly again there is a chance that they will return to Delhi.

Right now it seems that it might be  easier for people who have stayed behind to find employment again. But they are not finding any. For about two months streets were empty. All you could see was middle class people on their balconies, talking on the phone or doing exercises (I made the mistake of going out to buy medicine during the first day of the lockdown when the 5pm clapping was going on, it felt surreal). Now the streets have filled up, it seems that especially women domestic workers are returning to work – despite middle class fears of the disease being carried into their homes. But these sections of society are also returning to their offices. You can see ice cream vendors on the pavements again. Even though it is still unclear when temples and schools will be opened again, paan shops and alcohol shops  are available now. It is possible to go shopping, if not in shopping malls then at least in smaller neighbourhood shops like electronics, or household ware, and shoes etc. 

With the next phase of the crisis arriving, we are also considering changing methods from community kitchens towards other means of providing relief. But then on the other hand, it is still not very clear what will happen in the next few weeks and how to develop a strategy under these circumstances. 

V

I have stopped planning. First, I was tensed not knowing what would happen to me in the next months. During those early phases we were also much more worried about contracting the disease. But then you start hearing how the situation unfolds within your locality, and even if you get reports about people dying, it becomes part of your reality, which means you are less frightened on a daily basis, but there is rather an acceptance of these conditions. Now I am much more relaxed. Since there is no way of finding out when everything will open up again, I am much less stressed about it. Whereas I was worried in the beginning whether to stay in India or not, I have now accepted that I will just go with the flow. I cannot force anything so I will remain where I am and do whatever I can. It was too often now that the government announced to ease the lockdown and I thought one could finally see the end of the tunnel but then those promises never materialised until today. I am not sure whether one can believe that we will only go on with our work until June 8th

Not all the streets were opened up during the lockdown, some were blocked for traffic. At times they would stop the cars and ask for permits. There were some officers for whom it was not sufficient when only the driver was registered. One day we drove home after 8:00in the evening and they probably thought that we had all gone out to party. They asked: Who is she? You have a permit for yourself and your car but you are not allowed to carry other passengers. Sometimes they said that additional passengers have to sit in the back and are not allowed to sit next to the driver. 

Under the current crisis, it seems to me that there are so many opportunities opening up for people coming together for a common cause. Surely, this has also something to do with a very real fear of death. We as outsiders also may not fully grasp which community configurations were there before the kitchen projects. There seem to be two contradictory tendencies at play simultaneously: one is a more individualistic turn, the other one towards community orientation. Right now there might have been many initiatives by relatively well-off businesses, but what will happen if their sources of income are starting to dry up? We are still in the middle of this. 

All pictures credits by the Workers’ Dhaba. Their daily updates can be found here.

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