Throughout the day, the station would be filled with nearly 1 to 1.5 lakh migrants eager to reach their homes. It was so crowded that the lines of masses waiting for their trains would extend to the top of the flyover connected to the station. I’ve witnessed some heartbreaking scenes there........
I am from Kerala. When the Kerala floods happened in 2018, I felt powerless because I couldn’t be part of the relief operations since I was stuck in Mumbai. I had decided then that I would not let go of opportunities to be a part of any subsequent disaster relief operations. During the lockdown in March 2020, I learned that there were some 200-300 workers stuck in a slum near Bandra without any food. A man named Pintu lived in the slums and was helping other workers who were in distress. It was inspiring to see that he was willing to help others who were in a similar predicament despite his own struggles. I helped the workers in the slum procure ration and put up a post on social media on their plight. Some good samaritans reached out to me, and we raised around 4 lakh rupees which sustained the workers throughout the lockdown. One group that reached out to me to help them was Khaana Chahiye (KC). A contact put me in touch with Ruben, and that’s how I joined KC.
KC followed a Hub Spoke model of food distribution. Saumill, a fellow food ninja, and I used to collect food from the restaurant of one of the cofounders’ Neeti Goel called Madras Diaries. We distributed food at various touchpoints from Bandra to Dharavi, followed by several interior spots within Kurla, Chembur, and Govandi. We used to distribute 500-600 food packets daily. We would hand over the food packets to the Points Of Contacts (POCs) of the area, who would then carry it to the slum dwellers, daily wagers, and the homeless in their area.
We also distributed food and water to migrant workers travelling back home from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus. Throughout the day, the station would be filled with nearly 1 to 1.5 lakh migrants eager to reach their homes. It was so crowded that the lines of masses waiting for their trains would extend to the top of the flyover connected to the station. I’ve witnessed some heartbreaking scenes there - A mother running with a newborn to catch the train. Due to congestion, the police allowing only a few members of the same group to board the train, forcing friends and families to split up. Lathi charge of the migrants when the crowd grew beyond manageable proportions. Sometimes we just couldn’t distribute the food or water we had due to the sheer mass of people. Helplessly, watching standing by the side of cartons full of food and water, as hungry, dehydrated, and desperate passengers were hurriedly hoarded into the train was just dreadful. I remember a couple was travelling back home by truck with their 10-day old baby named Ayush. That family had to wait for hours in the filthy area under a flyover till the truck arrived.
During the COVID wave 2, I, along with few fellow alumni of my alma mater, IIM Ahmedabad, set up a Covid Care center in Bangalore. We also ran a call-center to assist people in availing hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. Now, we have formalized our efforts and started an NGO called IIMAction. We will soon launch Mobile Covid Care centers in Punjab and are implementing another health project in the Godda district in Jharkhand.
I have also worked with Sonu Sood for his Ghar Bhejo campaign, where we helped 3 lakh migrant workers reach their respective hometowns. I used to handle the IT backend of that project. We created a WhatsApp system collating messages from Twitter to make a database of workers who were travelling.
KC has evolved a lot over the last year and a half. We started by distributing 1000 meals per day, and at our peak we have also done more than one lakh meals per day. It is more organized now and with the backbone of a larger volunteer group. KC has evolved technologically as well. The Hunger Map Project is a testimonial to the same. Under the project, we are geo-mapping hunger demand in the country, starting with metros like Mumbai. The vision is to build a comprehensive platform where entities can access the data and information on the poor, including hunger demand, demographics, child care needs, etc., and collaborate with other entities to build long-lasting solutions for the problems faced by the marginalized.
India is one of the very few countries where the rich and the poor live together in harmony. As positive as this may sound, it also means that the rich continue to turn a blind eye towards those below them in social/economic hierarchy. We, the privileged, are inclined to pretend as if everything is normal. We were living in a bubble, and COVID-19 has simply burst that bubble. Hunger (and other basic needs) was always a problem in India. The pandemic just made it more evident.
Honestly, I feel that COVID-19 and the lockdown, however gruesome they may be, are opportunities for the privileged in the country to acknowledge their privilege. Ultimately, we are all looking for happiness. However, true happiness has a very simple but powerful source - Gratitude. And gratitude comes from being aware of our blessings. Blessings that we take for granted, like not having to struggle for food, having a roof over your head, and being able to take care of your near and dear ones. And being able to help even a few fellow citizens with these blessings is like the cherry on top of the cake. It’s nothing short of bliss.
Interviewed By Isha Talekar.