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Homeless left to fend for themselves as free meals during lockdown period discontinued

PUBLISHED ON JUL 08, 2020 10:38 PM IST

New Delhi:

The free meal scheme for marginalised occupants of government night shelter homes has been discontinued since July 1 after the relaxation of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in the capital, forcing its occupants to look for alternative arrangements, including stepping out to beg for food or looking for menial jobs..

Hundreds of homeless people lived in more than 230 Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) night shelters. Before the Covid-19 crisis struck in March, there was no provision for meals to residents of these shelters.

Azad Singh, 68, a resident of a shelter at Yamuna Bazaar, said he and his friends were dependent on alms provided by people in nearby temples and gurudwaras before the lockdown, as they were too old to find work.

“With the free meal system closed, we have to step out once again and arrange for food. Even if there are donations outsides the few temples and gurudwaras that are open, the place would be crowded and we run the risk of contracting the virus.” Singh said, adding he hoped the free meal scheme would resume.

Singh often brings food for his fellow occupant Suresh Rikki, 84, who doesn’t know where his next meal will come from these days. “I went to sleep on an empty stomach last Thursday – the first day we didn’t get food at the shelter,” he said. “Since Friday, I am relying on locals and other residents who bring me food sometimes.”

Due to the Covid-19 crisis and the subsequent loss of employment, many daily wage labourers, homeless population and people living on the streets relied on these shelters to get cooked meals.

The Delhi government had provided cooked food twice daily through the network of Hunger Relief Centres to an average of 10 lakh beneficiaries per day for almost two months.

Activists have raised their voices against the discontinuation of free meals at these shelters. “Until and unless work resumes completely and their livelihood is secure, these people should be provided food because they don’t have any social security. Most vulnerable are children, women, elderly, and the disabled. These are the people who don’t protest for their rights and we must take care of them,” said Indu Prakash Singh, member of the State Level Shelter Monitoring Committee.

Rakesh Kumar, member of the non-governmental organisation, Society For Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), which runs a night shelter at Sarai Kale Khan, said most people in shelter homes cook food on their own. “Only a few are dependent on the free meal scheme. For them, it is a problem because there is not much work. Most of them are daily wage labourers and expressed their disappointment when the scheme was discontinued.”

Kumar’s NGO had been preparing food for children at the Sarai Kale Khan shelter and for those who require extra care at the recovery shelter home in the premises before lockdown as well. “During the lockdown, we were preparing meals for around 1,000 people since we had to feed everyone. Now, the number has gone down to 150,” he said.

Savita Topno, 35, a resident at the Sarai Kale Khan shelter, had come to Delhi from her village in Jharkhand only a year ago with her husband looking for work. The Covid-19 crisis and the discontinuation of the free meal scheme have caused difficulties for the family.

“My husband is a daily wage labourer. He went to work on Friday after four days. We had little money and managed to buy some supplies to cook food since. There is no certainty about the coming days. Many are begging for food outside,” she said.

NH Sharma, Director, Night shelter, DUSIB, said, “The arrangement had started March 22 onwards and was till the ‘lockdown’ period ends. The National Urban Livelihoods Mission’s March 28 notification from the central government clearly stated free meals to be provided in all shelters across the country for the ‘lockdown’ period.”

Despite repeated requests through call and messages, Delhi government spokespersons did not comment on the matter.

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