Ajit Chaudhuri – Tata Sons Private Limited.

According to The Economist, the COVID-induced lockdown has divided the world into three Zs. There are those working from home on full pay using internet-based communication, the Zoomers, who have to deal with the trials and tribulations of housework and boredom. Then there are those with zero-hour contracts as small businessmen, labourers, and informally employed service providers, the Zeros, who are in considerable distress. And then there is Gen Z, with tanked higher education and employment prospects, also in distress. My own situation (thus far) as per this categorization is thankfully the first, and I decided to alleviate the boredom by stepping out and doing some voluntary work.

I got an opportunity with a Mumbai-based citizen-organized food delivery initiative called ‘Khaana Chahiye’ (details at khaanachahiye.com), which prepared hot meals and provided them at railway stations to migrants leaving the city, at slums to those living without work, and on the roads to pavement dwellers and itinerants. I came to know of the initiative through a colleague and spent an evening at a railway station as an observer before applying to be a volunteer on its website. By the time I came on board (mid-May) it was very well organized (having begun in March), so I just needed to slot in and get to work.

I spent two weeks going to a restaurant in Bandra every morning, loading 3,200 hot meals on to a BEST bus with my supervisor, and then heading to Dahisar via points in Jogeshwari, Borivli, Malwani, Malad, etc., handing over a specified number of meals to contact persons at pre-arranged locations. We also took the occasional detour; once we had some crates of gulab jamuns that we delivered to orphanages in and around Andheri after our regular route, another when we stopped to take a COVID test (this was required by all volunteers).

I did contemplate whether this was an appropriate decision given that my wife and I are at vulnerable ages and my mother-in-law was with us in those days. Also, it meant going out and volunteering during work hours. But it took me out of the house after two months spent in a closed space with wife and ma-in-law (readers would sympathize with my predicament). And my own city was (is) facing its biggest crisis in living memory, and I was not going to respond to the question ‘what did you do during the lockdown?’ with an ‘I was a good boy! I stayed at home.’ No way!!

Volunteers handing over food packets

The experience was pretty good fun! My key learnings were –

I finally got to see Mumbai’s suburbs! There was an old joke at the time of India’s moon mission, in which the Mumbaikar issues ISRO a challenge – let’s see who reaches first, you to the moon or me to Andheri East. With no traffic, I discovered that Bandra was 15 minutes away from home and Andheri East merely another 30. The suburbs were civilized and worth seeing. I am no longer intimidated by the prospect of stepping beyond my corner of the city.

I saw the limits to technology! The organizers had initially planned to send the food out with a driver armed with the location of the drop-off points on Google Maps and the phone numbers of the respective point-of-contacts. The ensuing chaos resulted in a steep learning curve, with things changing to ensure that there was a volunteer on every bus who was responsible for delivery, was a face of the initiative to the beneficiary, and was available for feedback and requisitions on future needs and requirements. We got to know the importance of the bananas and biscuits we provided in addition to the meals (they were kept by children for next morning’s breakfast), or that the Don Bosco orphanage could absorb any amount of meals (it had young boys with large appetites – so we made it our last stop in which its own quota and any additional stuff could be offloaded) by virtue of our presence at transactions and our conversations with the beneficiaries.

Volunteers unloading the food packets from the truck

Life was good at the bottom of the chain! I had no stress about the logistics (others were handling that), and so got time to look around and absorb things. Like the efficiency of operations (hot food moving from being a set of ingredients to filling a hungry person’s stomach, every day, in numbers, changing for the requirement of the day, all the work done by volunteers!). Or the happiness with which my bus driver drove on the city’s empty roads – he had spent 45 days in lockdown before being called up and was thrilled to be out. Or the integrity with which the recipients reduced their requirements as time passed.

I met new and inspiring people! It was good to know that there are people in this city who put self-interest on low priority during a crisis and refuse to let lockdown restrictions and health risks get in the way of doing things that need to be done. The initiative was organized by a group of restauranteurs without restaurants (due to the lockdown) – they saw that people needed food and opened their kitchens to make it available. My co-volunteers were mostly people who had been upended by the pandemic; people who had their own worries and yet stepped out to do things for others. It was an honour to meet my co-volunteers!

Family with food packets received from the volunteers

After two weeks of duty, one of my co-volunteers tested positive for COVID and I was asked to go on self-quarantine. When I returned after 10 days, I found that things had changed for the better – traffic was back on the roads, that ghost-town feeling was gone, and the need for cooked food had reduced considerably. Within a few days, ‘Khaana Chahiye’ correctly decided to close the route, and I got back to a normal ‘work from home’.

I am delighted to add that ‘Khaana Chahiye’ (under its formal name, ‘Project Mumbai’) recently received the UN SDG Solidarity Action Award for 2020.