Bhalswa is home to Delhi’s largest open garbage dump – and working-class families who can’t afford to live in a less toxic place. Around noon on Saturday, a queue snaked around a bend in the road leading into the neighbourhood. Food was being distributed inside a community hall by the Shri Shiv Sevak Delhi Mahashakti Group, an organisation that runs kitchens during the annual Amarnath pilgrimage in Kashmir.
When we saw people lined up on the road, we started rolling the camera, not realising that the queue was nearly 2 km long.
In the queue were hundreds of men and women clutching cloth bags. Inside the bags were empty pots and pans that they hoped to fill up with cooked food. Some held up umbrellas to protect them from the scorching sun.
Many said they were embarrassed about queuing up for food. A common refrain was: “Hum kamaa ke khaane waale log hain.” We are workers who earn and feed ourselves. But the lockdown has deprived them of work and wages.
As migrants in the city, many do not have the ration cards needed to access foodgrains from the public distribution system. For such families, the Delhi government has started issuing temporary food coupons online. But outside a school in Bhalswa, where food rations were being distributed, we met many people who had successfully registered for such coupons, but were still being turned away empty-handed.
“There is no food in our homes,” said Veena Singh, 28, a woman who stood in the food queue outside the community hall. She has been living in the neighbourhood with her husband and three children for eight years. A domestic worker, she earns Rs 1,500 as a monthly salary, while her husband, a porter, earns daily wages. The family had Rs 4,000 in savings when the lockdown began. But the money started to run out fairly quickly. “Along with the electricity bill, we end up spending Rs 3,000 on rent,” she said.
As migrants from Bihar’s Motihari district, the family does not have a ration card in Delhi. “Those who have ration cards are getting double the foodgrains, but we are not getting anything,” she said. She had applied for a food coupon but was yet to receive one.
Singh now comes to the community hall every day to fill up three pots with dal, sabzi, rice and roti. This often means standing in the sun for one and a half hours.
Despite the hardship, most people are grateful to get cooked meals.
“The quality of the food is great,” said Mohammad Nolej. “It tastes just like home food.”
Nolej works as a daily-wage porter in Azadpur Mandi, the vegetables and fruits market in North Delhi. Since last week, work at the mandi had come to a standstill, he said, leaving him with no choice option but to queue up for food. He first went to the government school in Jahangirpuri, the neighbourhood where he lives, about 2 km from Bhalswa. “I did not get food, even though my children are studying there,” he said. He described scenes of mismanagement at the school. “Police waale dande barsa rahe the.” Policemen were swinging lathis.
In comparison, even though it was a long trek to the community hall in Bhalswa, he was able to fill up enough food for two meals for his family of four. “In the school, they serve khichdi on small plates, while here they allow us to take food for the entire family,” he said. What was most impressive, he said, was that they were serving vegetables along with rotis and rice.
A group of volunteers went past in a jeep making announcements, asking people to maintain adequate distance between each other in the queue. Another vehicle carried water drums. A volunteer asked people who had queued up to keep their Aadhaar cards ready. “People with three family members would come and take away food for ten and then waste it,” said the volunteer, explaining why they had asked people to produce identity cards. Asked whether they would leave out children in the family, who often do not have identity cards, he said: “We don’t implement this strictly. We allow people to take extra food.” Those in the queue agreed.
Naresh Kumar Sisodia of the Shri Shiv Sevak Delhi Mahashakti Group said that the community kitchen started to cook meals for around 18,000 people on March 29. “We saw a lot of people walking back to their villages,” said Sisodia. “Some would have to cover 1,000 km. We asked them to stay back.”
He said the organisation’s members had contributed both foodgrains and cash to keep the kitchen running. Most of them were businessmen who own grocery stores, sweet shops and tenting services, while some were salaried professionals. “We will continue to do this for as long as we can,” he said. “Since we began, the number of people in the line has only increased.”
At 12.10 pm, Lilavati Devi was the last person in the queue – but not for long. Scores of others lined up behind her within minutes.
A resident of an unauthorised colony at Bhalswa Dairy, 40-year-old Devi came to Delhi with her husband around 25 years ago from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. She worked as a vegetable vendor earning between Rs 300 to Rs 450 in a day until the lockdown forced her to pack up. She has no savings left. Even the family’s monthly food rations of 30 kgs of wheat and 8 kgs of rice are over.
For the past ten days, Devi has stood in the scorching heat to collect food to take back home for her husband and two children aged 20 and eight years.
Five months ago, her elder son, 25-year-old Lokush, who works as a painter, went to Mumbai for work. He could not make it back home in time before the lockdown began. Devi said he was supposed to get married on May 24.
“He calls us and tells us that he is just in the room without any money and that he buys food on credit,” said Devi. “I am so sad but what can I do?”
Thirty-year-old Fakhruddin stood in the queue carrying two utensils with him. He was there to collect food for his wife Nargis, 25, and their four-year-old child. “We are scared about the virus spreading but we are more worried about food,” he said.
The family had come to Delhi from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh around six years ago. As a daily wage earner, Fakhruddin earned around Rs 400 per day but work had dried up after the lockdown. He has around Rs 400 saved up and owes his grocer Rs 4,000.
He wanted to take his family back to Aligarh where his sister lives, but could not leave before the trains and buses stopped running. “The poor will die like this,” he said.
Another worker, Sirajul, had walked nearly 2 kms from his home in an unauthorised colony in Burari to stand in the queue. “I do not even have a single penny with me,” he said. The bottling water factory where he worked had closed operations during the lockdown. He had a family of five to feed – his wife and four children aged seven, six, three and two.
He came to Delhi from Goalpara district in Assam a year ago. All he wanted now was to go back home to his 85-year-old mother who was unwell. “My brother told me she has a fever and a headache,” he said.
He had just one request for the government: “It is very important to open this lockdown so I can go home.”