“If people don’t get food, they will die,” said Santosh Kumar who lives in Pisavali, a low-income settlement in Dombivali. “Therefore we decided as a collective to pool in our resources and set up a community kitchen to feed the poor and helpless persons in our midst.”

Kumar, an autorickshaw driver, was stirred to action a fortnight into the lockdown to contain the speak of the coronavirus when he realised that the migrant workers who lived in his settlement were venturing out every day in search of food despite the restrictions on movement. The complete shutdown of the city had left them without work, income or food. Even as these workers braved police batons, humiliation and the possibility of contracting the disease, they often returned home hungry.

So in mid-April, Kumar and his neighbours got together to persuade a local real-estate developer to open up a vacant room in one of his buildings in their neighbourhood to start the community kitchen. Around 20 volunteers from the settlement joined in to help run it. They were expecting to feed around a hundred but as word spread, they began cater to double that number every day.

Similar initiatives sprung up in low-income settlements throughout the Mumbai Metropolitan Region in areas such as Deonar, Wadala, Juhu Galli, Malvani and Bhiwandi between April and June.

Global crisis

With the world economy in continued downward spiral as countries have been forced into prolonged lockdowns, food insecurity poses a global humanitarian crisis. The pandemic has exposed the deep class divisions and inequality in terms of access to food, especially as livelihoods and incomes have begun to dry up, especially amongst those in the informal economy. Consequently, the urban poor have been eating less and forgoing expensive items that offer a balanced nutritious diet. They have been borrowing money to buy rations and fuel. What lessons does the experience of running community kitchens in Mumbai hold for the future?

In theory, the government should have been taking care of these migrants, most of whom wanted to return to their home towns and villages but were stranded in cities because of the unprecedented lockdown. On March 27, two days after the lockdown was imposed, the Union government directed the states and Union territories to provide adequate food and shelter for people who needed it. However, most migrant workers were excluded from the free food grain being distributed through the Public Distribution System because their ration cards had been issued by their home states and not the state they were currently working in.

Almost immediately, individuals, NGOs and charitable organisations began to distribute cooked food to the very visible, growing mass of hungry people who had fallen through the chasms of the official system across India.

The Mumbai municipal corporation distributed cooked food to stranded migrants and other vulnerable populations such as the homeless and the destitute without asking for ration cards in the shelter homes when the lockdown was declared. At the peak of the migrant crisis in April, the Mumbai local government claimed it was distributing 12 lakhs of cooked meals a day. Yet, it failed to reach many of those in need.

Volunteers at a Mumbai community kitchen. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

On the ground, food packet distribution was a highly localised process through elected municipal corporators at the ward level. Since migrant workers do not vote for corporators, they did not figure highly in the scheme of things when food was being distributed at the ward level. Despite calling the municipal helpline for food, stranded migrant labourers in several pockets of Mumbai such as Aarey Colony, Dharavi and Antop Hill went hungry for several days.

Others reported that the food being offered to them by the authorities was tasteless,the portions barely adequate and was served to them in a manner that demeaned them.

Recognising the acute deprivation, community leaders across Mumbai started community kitchens, sometimes with the help of civil society organisations and individual or corporate donors. In Deonar, five community kitchens were set up by early April and were feeding 6,000 families every day. “We planned on doing this till the lockdown is lifted,” said Ishad Khan, a community leader from the area. Corporate funding and some government support were secured through the Transforming M ward field action project anchored by Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Humane approach

The humane and empathetic approach adopted by these community-run kitchens enabled stranded migrants to feel respected instead of feeling disenfranchised and invisible. The freshly cooked meals they got every day helped families to conserve their meagre resources. Communities actively leveraged their skills, networks and practical knowledge to organise and run these kitchens in a supple and flexible manner, making the best use of limited resources. They were creative, refusing to compromise on taste and nutrition.

The pandemic has revealed how invisible Mumbai’s migrant workers are to the official machinery and brought into the focus the absence of mechanisms to identify them. In that light, self-organised kitchens are important bridges to migrant daily wage workers living in slums and industrial clusters and who have very little political leverage in the city.

But for community kitchens to be sustainable in localities with high populations of migrant workers, setting them up should be the responsibility of the local government and the Collector’s office, said Amita Bhide, Dean, School of Habitat Studies at TISS. “NGOs and civil society support can be sought, but with logistical support from the state,” she said.

Stranded workers in Chennai. Credit: PTI

The state cannot abdicate its responsibility from taking care of the urban poor, including migrants. In this context, the Kerala model of community-run kitchens is instructive. It is decentralised, located in every panchayat and uses the resources of local self governments. The kitchens are operated by local residents trained by the state-run Kudumbashree programme for women’s empowerment. Moreover, self-organised kitchens must be supplemented by a robust and just public distribution system to ensure sustainable and long term food security.

A sense of ownership and agency drives the Mumbai community kitchens. Though individuals, corporations, institutions and NGOs provided the funds (and even raw materials in some cases), kitchens came up when there was an actively involved community in place. Highly motivated, trustworthy and knowledgeable community members were able to negotiate and secure locations within the most vulnerable bastis to start the centres. Their understanding of complex community dynamics enabled the community leaders to identify vulnerable households and streamline the process of food distribution.

Building local leadership

Community development programmes that invest in building local leadership and capacity are therefore crucial to scaling up these interventions in other communities in the future. Without accountability, community based organisations helping with food distribution can be eyed with suspicion – especially for misappropriation of funds, This could create cracks in an already fragile community. Strong leadership, democratic structures and transparent processes prevent such community based responses from being co-opted by powerful vested interests.

Each self-organised kitchen is an opportunity to build community solidarity, new networks and alliances with local government, civil society actors, and work towards strengthening community level resilience.

Another key lesson is that the kitchens were able to keep costs to a minimum by sourcing materials locally and using community volunteers. Food grains, vegetables, spices were bought from local vendors. Utensils were bought or rented from neighbourhood caterers. These factors ensured that the cost of producing each food packet was around Rs 7 to Rs 10 per serving (in comparison to Rs 30 for meals produced by the Mumbai municipal corporation). Wastage was minimised with kitchens adapting to daily variations in demand while boosting the local economy.

Children in Kolkata stand in line to receive a meal. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

To feminist scholar Dolores Hayden, soup kitchens in the West represent a way to re-imagine feminist labour by divorcing the kitchen from the private space. She thought of the kitchen as a larger community level infrastructure enabling women to pursue other productive activities. Cooking would thus be a collective responsibility rather than a household one.

Singapore has experimented with easily accessible public food courts and hawker markets offering affordable, freshly cooked, locally sourced food to enable women to participate in the economy and offer local employment opportunities. These spaces foster social ties through community dining and social interactions across classes.

Of course, problems do exist. As grassroots institutions, community kitchens are embedded in local dynamics. Decision-making about food distribution is likely to be uneven and shaped by existing socio-economic inequalities and prejudices.

On the other hand, with the right kind of financial, institutional support and sustained efforts at enabling democratising and decentralising processes, community kitchens may be a dignified, risk reducing alternative to the apathy of the state in ensuring food security for the urban poor.

Ratoola Kundu teaches urban planning at the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance at TISS, Mumbai and pursues a research interest in examining ways in which spatial planning engenders social inclusions and exclusions in cities of the global south.

With key inputs from community leaders, Sabah Khan, Amita Bhide and Mahesh Kamble.

A time of unprecedented social suffering and uncertainty, Covid-19 serves as a moment of crisis as well as possibility for making urban policy differently. This article is part of an eight-part series that seeks to address the question of how the pandemic could be used to transform Mumbai into a more inclusive, resilient city. Read the other articles here.