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

The men had travelled from Tamil Nadu to lay gas pipelines and when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown last week they were left stranded, unable to work or get home.

“We don’t know where the contractor lives,” said Shekhar, 40, of the employer that abandoned them when the lockdown was announced. “We sent all our earnings home. How do we feed ourselves?” he asked as he scooped the hot food Singh had provided onto a paper plate.

Singh, 44, who has a studio rental business, is among many Indians striving to help those less fortunate in the country of 1.3 billion people, scene of the world’s largest lockdown.

India has so far recorded more than 4,000 cases of the new coronavirus, relatively low numbers compared to other countries.

The strict quarantine measures have, however, created another 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 across India 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 Dharmendra Kumar, secretary Jan Pahal, a charity running community kitchens in and around 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.”

Volunteers in Mumbai serve food to migrant workers from Tamil Nadu during the coronavirus lockdown on April 2. Credit: Roli Srivastava/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Helping hands

It is not just the wealthy who are helping out. 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 local 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,” Suresh Chauhan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “I can sit home with my family, but I know what it is like to sleep hungry. I just felt I had to do this and help in my own way.”

Charities running helplines for stranded migrant workers say most of the calls they receive now are desperate pleas for food. Among those who called the helpline run by Jan Sahas, a non-profit organisation, was construction worker Bikram Singh Lodi, who was stranded in Northern India with his wife and two children.

“I exhausted my little savings within a week of the lockdown,” said Lodi, who is among 14 worker families living in shanties.

Unable to connect him to a food kitchen nearby, the charity transferred Rs 2,000 rupees into his bank account to buy food. Veena Shatrugna, former deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, said the health implications of the lockdown were “huge” as families were left with no choice but to starve or walk long distances to get home.

“Children walking home with their parents, and poor nutrition of pregnant women will make them vulnerable to a host of infections,” she said.

India’s food and civil supplies officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile India’s city kitchens are battling to keep the meals coming, facing unprecedented difficulties as the closure of inter-state borders pushes supply chains to near-collapse, with some farmers forced to dump their produce.

Mumbai businessman Singh has been able to rely on the security guards at his apartment building to help navigate the challenge. “Residents have contributed money, some gave us vessels,” said Singh. “But the security guards are the most helpful by getting supplies. They understand hunger.”

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.