IT began as a response to lockdown-induced hunger that was ravaging Mumbai’s urban poor. Khaana Chahiye has served 6 million+ meals to the hungry so far, and it is determined to continue its mission beyond the pandemic.
What began as a one-off drive, with the powerful army of volunteers with support from celebrities and ordinary citizens, Khaana Chahiye ventured into other areas during the second wave, while putting its vast network to come to the aid of citizens in distress. The NGO caters to Mumbai’s poor through its unique Hunger Map initiative and also provides livelihood opportunities to women through their community kitchens.
Give had a quick chat with Founder Director Ruben Mascarenhas about his fight to bring hunger to the forefront, the power of community during a crisis, and more.
: Did you have an epiphany or a moment of revelation that led you to start Khaana Chahiye? How did you come with the name?
Ruben Mascarenhas: When the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020, I received multiple distress calls through my friends and social media, about people going hungry, as their livelihoods had been adversely affected. A few of us came together and decided that we can’t be mere spectators when this was happening.
On the 29th of March, 2020, we prepared 1,200 meals and went to distribute them on the Western Express Highway – one of Mumbai’s arterial roads – to those in extreme need. This was primarily for the most vulnerable communities living below flyovers and on footpaths. What we saw was heartbreaking… Most people had had nothing to eat for over two days. The problem was clearly much bigger than what we imagined it to be. That is the day we started hunger relief operations and called it Khaana Chahiye.
The name Khaana Chahiye in colloquial Hindi, translates to ‘Want Food?’ if asked like a question or ‘I want food’ like an assertion. In both cases, it is an intimate way of saying so, used at home between two family members. Khaana Chahiye instantly communicates what we stand for and what we do, so we adopted it.
GI: From the focus on feeding the hungry during the first wave of COVID-19, you shifted your attention towards helping the needy to get to the hospitals during the second wave. Tell us about that.
RM: Khaana Chahiye has always been focused on the cause of hunger. Even after the first wave ended, we used the drop-in cases to start ‘Sundays for Mumbai’, wherein we mapped out Mumbai’s micro-clusters which were severely affected by poverty and hunger. We used a data collection tool, as part of our Hunger Map project. We are also working with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the state government to ensure the last-mile delivery of hunger-related schemes.
During the second wave, I started receiving a lot of calls for help on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, pertaining to hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, Remdesivir injections, ambulances, and plasma. These were calls by patients and patients’ families, who had not received help from calling the BMC war rooms.
So, I reached out to a few of my colleagues at the Aam Aadmi Party and set up a COVID helpline. We did not intend to replace the BMC war rooms but to support a system that was already stretched to its limits. On average, we received about 1,000 – 1,500 calls per day. As we built a good rapport with the lower bureaucracy – members of the war rooms, doctors, and hospital administration – we could eventually resolve up to 60% of our cases. During the second wave, we would have cumulatively reached out to and helped over 12,000 patients with their needs for COVID related support.
Thus, COVID medical relief was beside our food operations, which continued.
GI: How does it help when powerful voices in Mumbai speak up for Khaana Chahiye?
RM: Mumbai is a city of polar extremes. We have islands of prosperity surrounded by fields of poverty. People have asked me “How did you realise that hunger is a problem?” I realised that we belong to a middle class surrounded by bubbles of privilege, which creates an illusion of wellness. This often blinds us to the social strife, the poverty and hunger that surrounds us. We received a lot of support from Mumbai’s who’s who and celebrities, who helped us break into these bubbles of privilege and reach out to the public. This enabled us to bring hunger to the forefront and raise crowdfunding. Hunger is like the tip of our nose; it’s there but we become selectively blind to it.
GI: Any stories from the ground that you would like to share about the hunger crisis in Mumbai?
RM: This happened on Day 1 when we distributed food on the Western Express Highway under the Andheri flyover. We found a family of four, which hadn’t eaten in three days. They didn’t know that we had more packets of food. Still, they started sharing their packets with hungry families on the other side of the highway. While we gave all the families more packets, I was really touched that they could be charitable towards one another despite their abject conditions. If they can be generous, then we can certainly learn from them. It should be part of our social aim to eliminate poverty and hunger.
GI: Working on-ground during the pandemic must have been physically & mentally taxing for your team and the volunteer base. How did you manage it?
RM: To be honest, I have been taking therapy since the start of the pandemic. We have ensured that all our volunteers have access to adequate mental health resources. Working in the middle of the pandemic puts you under a lot of pressure, and coming face-to-face with harsh, gut-wrenching conditions, and the consequent emotional stress calls for the need to make space for personal well-being.
The ‘thank you’ messages and smiles we saw on people’s faces after the distribution went a long way in alleviating all the pressure and stress.
GI: You worked as a software engineer, dabbled in journalism, and you were part of the anti-corruption movement in the early 2010s. You are now a social worker and a politician. Is it fair to call you a maverick?
RM: Not really. I am a jack of all trades and a master of some, not ‘none’. I believe that there certainly cannot be one panacea for all societal issues. My theory of change is to do many things, some big and some small, to deal with what we call ‘public problem-solving causes.’ I intend to address all social and socio-economic problems and eliminate avoidable suffering.
GI: If you had to choose between listening to music, watching a film, or reading a book – what would it be? What would you listen to/ watch/ or read?
RM: Reading a book, always. While it is often presumed that reading is a passive activity, it is quite active on the inside. Just as one must go to the gymnasium to exercise an obese body, one must read to exercise an obese mind. That being said, I am months behind on my reading schedule of one book a week. I have a lot of catching up to do.
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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