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Cyclone Tauktae and how citizens fight hunger

Khaana Chahiye, a Mumbai-based non-profit, has mobilised hundreds of volunteers to continue food aid beyond the pandemic

A volunteer from Khaana Chahiye distributes food.

Last week, violent winds seized the city of Mumbai as cyclone Tauktae arrived. The ominous weather didn’t deter Khaana Chahiye volunteers from continuing to distribute free food among vulnerable communities. The not-for-profit provided 30,000 meals in three days to those who had been evacuated from the city’s coastal areas.

This is just the latest instance of Khaana Chahiye rising to the occasion. The campaign started in March 2020 when Ruben Mascarenhas, one of the founding members, started distributing food to address lockdown food shortage issues among migrant workers and the homeless. He was moved by what he saw and heard. “I asked them when was the last time they had eaten. They said it had been three days. But even then their intent was not to keep the food to themselves. They told me—Sir, wahan pe bhi kuch log hain, unko bhi khaana chahiye (There are some more people over there; they need food too).” Soon, those driving the programme realised that the need was not limited to the pandemic—and registered as a non-profit in November.

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Mascarenhas, the Aam Aadmi Party’s national joint secretary, reached out to his network of friends—NGO workers, digital media professionals and restaurateurs. Now, along with Mascarenhas, some of them form the board of directors of Khaana Chahiye: There’s restaurateur Neeti Goel, advocate Rakesh Singh, digital media professional Swaraj Shetty and businessman Anik Gadia.

The idea was to identify the city’s most vulnerable populations, mobilise on the ground as well as on digital platforms and provide balanced, nutritious meals. They located unused restaurant kitchens where free meals could be cooked hygienically. They partnered with NGOs like Bharat Utthan Sangh as well as Project Mumbai, an engagement platform for issues ranging from infrastructure to healthcare and plastic recycling, and the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC).

Mascarenhas says, “One of the best-kept secrets of the city is that there are 18 night shelters which can house the homeless. The BMC runs them.” This week, they joined hands with the BMC to provide relief to those who had to be evacuated due to cyclone Tauktae. They were moved to shelters and evacuation centres.

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Khaana Chahiye’s founders, who describe the organisation as an apolitical entity, say the role of each member is not limited to food distribution. They pitch in to implement digital plans or recruit volunteers. Last year, they worked with about 250 volunteers; this year, they have around 150. A team of 10 manages digital needs, community researchers spread out to grasp what kind of relief work is needed, while yet others work on food-related solutions. Khaana Chahiye has only two permanent employees.

This decentralised, volunteer-driven and collaborative approach, of partnering with the BMC and NGOs, has created an astonishing impact. Consider these numbers: from 1,200 meals a day in March 2020, they are distributing 40,000 meals a day in May 2021; from starting with a capital fund of about 25,000 in March 2020, they raised 5 crore within 21 days in April this year; from making food in restaurants in 2020, they have set up community kitchens to provide employment to underprivileged women this year.

Women working in a community kitchen facilitated by Khaana Chahiye.
Women working in a community kitchen facilitated by Khaana Chahiye.

Word about their work spread fast on social media. “We have some principles: We don’t do poverty porn, no ads, feature visuals indicating relief aid and share stories of our tireless volunteers,” says Shetty.

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Last year, they provided 4.65 million meals to those in extreme need and migrant workers, including those travelling on more than 200 Shramik trains. This year has been somewhat different. They anticipated another lockdown in January and were better prepared.

“We have people on the ground who give us intel. This time, things worsened and affected people who were otherwise managing to survive. People have moved down one level in their income already. We are looking at communities like stage artists who have not been earning for over a year. So we distribute ration kits to stage artists. These communities can’t even reach out openly,” says Gadia. A recent report by the US-based Pew Research Center estimates the pandemic could have shrunk India’s middle class by 32 million, and driven 75 million below the poverty line, in 2020.

This year, the beneficiaries include people from low-income groups who lost their jobs, among them domestic workers, especially women, commercial sex workers and people from the trans community. They don’t necessarily need free cooked meals because they have the vessels to cook. Their requirement could be limited to groceries.

“Food aid was provided to these communities last year too. We have built a sense of trust with them and can tell their suffering has not ceased,” says Neeraj Shetye, programme manager and one of the two employees of Khaana Chahiye.

Apart from funds, they are now seeking support in kind, from groceries to medical equipment like masks and sanitisers, for orphanages, old-age homes and small hospitals. In addition, they welcome information on communities that need help, encouraging people to report hunger on their website www.khaanachahiye.com. They have launched a free 24x7 ambulance service, Raahat Chahiye.

They have noticed another change this year—a surge in citizen-led fund-raisers. They received nearly 2 lakh from the #BakeForIndia initiative where cakes and cookies were pledged to encourage donors. Last weekend, chef Thomas Zacharias started the Desi Granola Fundraiser auction to raise 3 lakh for their work. Journalists who interviewed them later joined as volunteers. Shetty says, “In that sense, Khaana Chahiye belongs to every Mumbaikar.”

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