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Dumpsite in Delhi (Source: Josephine Vossen, Kindernothilfe)

Hunger is a greater fear than COVID-19

Wafts of smoke drift over endless mountains of garbage, the stench is unbearable. Children stalk in flip-flops over the garbage in one of Delhi's largest garbage dumps - with large sacks in which they stuff metal, glass and rags. Their eyes water from the smoke, and scars on their feet and hands are evidence of the injuries they have sustained from broken glass or sharp metal edges. A degrading way to earn money. But for many families in Bhalswa, a slum in the capital Delhi, it makes the difference between survival and starvation. Then came Corona - and the world's biggest lockdown imposed by the Indian government for 1.3 billion people. Families, who were already living from hand to mouth, were left empty-handed.

Text: Gunhild Aiyub, Mayuri Datta, photos: Josephine Herschel, Kindernothilfe partner

At the beginning of September around 3.7 million people are infected with corona, more than 66.300 have died. This puts India in 3rd place worldwide in the number of countries worst affected by COVID-19. The Indian government had already pulled the emergency brake on March 25 and brought public life to a standstill. People were only allowed to leave the house for food, medicine and in emergencies, but the number of infections increased steadily. Tens of thousands of migrant workers tried to return from the cities to their home villages and spread the virus to the furthest corners of the country. More than 140 million people lost their jobs in the meantime, countless are still fighting for survival. Around 90 percent of the working population works in the informal sector - like the families at the Bhalswa garbage dump: This means they have no employment contract, no security.

"Day laborers, garbage collectors, domestic workers, rickshaw drivers, construction workers, migrants, street vendors and many others whose livelihood depends on simple activities are particularly affected by the lockdown," says Father Santosh, director of Kindernothilfe's partner Deepti Foundation in Bhalswa. "Most of the families here are among them. They have no savings. What they earn, they spend on their daily needs. In the Dairy slum next to the garbage dump, we supported around 1,900 families with food packages. A family of five, for example, receives rice, wheat flour, pulses, oil, sugar and salt for about ten days. In April we also distributed 5,000 masks.

Father Santosh and his staff distribute food parcels (Source: Kindernothilfe partner)
Father Santosh and his staff distribute food parcels

If the rush becomes too great, the police will help with the distribution

He and his employees have come to a distribution point, the car packed to the roof with food. The news of their arrival spread like wildfire. Father Santosh and his people are the only ray of hope for the people of Bhalswa-Dairy. Mostly women have come to have the heavy bags of rice and flour lifted onto their heads. Happily they leave with their load. The crowd becomes bigger. "The minimum distance for distribution is a great challenge, as people are gathering in their hundreds," says Father Santosh. If the rush becomes too great, the police help with the distribution. And whenever the police notice that someone is starving, they inform Father Santosh. Deepti has been given a special exit permit to supply the poor.

Unemployment and hunger no longer affect only the poorest, but even the urban middle class. "We were handing out food parcels when a man on a motorcycle came and asked for one of them," Father Santosh recalls. "I asked him why he didn't have money for food when there was enough to fill up. The man burst into tears and said, 'Father, I came here with the last drops of gasoline in the tank. I am in a terrible situation! My social status does not allow me to beg or ask for help.' Of course I gave the poor guy a parcel.'"

Father Santosh during Covid relief work (Source: Kindernothilfe partner)
The families receive e. g. rice, wheat flour, 
Women receiving food parcels from the Kindernothilfe Partner Deepti (Source: Kindernothilfe partner)
legumes, oil, sugar and salt

"Things have turned out much worse than we thought"

Several times the lockdown has already been extended - so far with little success. Because of the catastrophic economic situation of many families, the government decided to implement the first easing of the lockdown outside the high-risk areas as early as mid-May, in order to avoid thousands of starving people. Even if this is at the expense of health, and the number of those infected is now increasing even more. Hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, hairdressers, fitness studios are open again. "We expected the numbers to go up," admitted Delhi's head of government Arvind Kejriwal at the end of June, "but things have turned out much worse than we thought.” Some regions, including the megacities of Mumbai and Chennai, returned to the lockdown. The Maharashtra government e. g. extended the lockdown in the entire state till September 30: Cinema halls, metro rail, schools, colleges remain shut. There are no international flights, no social, political, sports, religious functions.

A man distributes masks (Source: Kindernothilfe partner)
The Kindernothilfe partner Deepti Foundation distributes also mask to the people in Bhalswa-Dairy

 

Prashant's mother cannot pay back the borrowed money

13-year-old Prashant from Cuddalore in South India has not been given anything to eat at lunchtime since the schools closed. His single mother has lost her job in the fields and cannot find a new job. She has taken out a loan from a moneylender to buy food for the family. "I feel very sad when I see her worried because the man is demanding his money back, but she can't pay it," complains Prashant. "I wish the school would be open again, so that my brother and I could eat there. We would eat so much that we didn't even need more food in the evening. I don’t want our mother to have to borrow money to buy food for us."

Jehangirpuri, the neighboring district of Bhalswa-Dairy, is one of the worst corona hotspots in the capital. Nevertheless, everyday life has returned to the garbage dump. The cows, which had the hills with stinking garbage for a long time to themselves, have to share it with the garbage collectors again. Most of the people have resumed their work, says Father Santosh. The desperation of not being able to feed the families is greater than the fear of infection.

2 girls on a dumpsite (Source: Josephine Vossen)
The children and their families are back on the dumpsite

"The virus threatens children who are already weakened"

"The government must therefore ensure that the poor are not abandoned," Mayrui Datta demands. "For the people in the slums and villages, even prolonged isolation can be a health risk: they live together in very confined spaces, and many do not even have water around the clock. How can we expect a children to wash their hands when they don't even have enough water to drink? This virus threatens children who are already weakened by poverty, disease and hunger. The United Nations estimate that within six months up to 10,000 children worldwide could die every day - India is one of the most affected countries.

Kindernothilfe's partners have been working tirelessly for months in many regions of the country: they provide information on hygiene measures via radio and loudspeaker announcements. They distribute soap, masks, food and information material. Families who live on the streets receive food packages. For children who need physiotherapy or speech therapy, parents receive telephone instructions from therapists where possible. Mayuri Datta is certain: "The peak of the pandemic in India has not yet been reached. Much remains to be done. The people in the projects are grateful that Kindernothilfe partners are at their side".