Filling in the gaps: how Delhi organisations provided food relief during COVID-19 full transcript
Host [00:01] You are listening to Make Change Happen, the podcast from IIED.
This time, we're presenting a guest episode created by our partners, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, on the development of a social network that delivered food relief in Delhi, India during COVID-19.
Anna Walnycki [00:25] Hello, my name’s Anna Walnycki and I'm a principal researcher at IIED.
This is a guest episode of Make Change Happen, and it's produced by our amazing partners IIHS, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, which is a national educational research practice and capacity development institution based in India.
IIED has been working with IIHS and our partners Dialogue on Shelter, which is a Slum Dwellers International affiliate based in Zimbabwe, to document the impact of COVID-19 and the urban social protection responses that emerged in both regions. The outputs from this research were funded by FCDO through the Covid Collective and are now hosted in a specific policy research-orientated archive on our website.
This specific episode focuses on the development of the Delhi Coordinated Relief Network. And it takes us through the formation of this network at the beginning of the pandemic and how it succeeded in delivering food relief to some of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in Delhi.
The podcast also reflects on some of the key lessons for social protection, and the role of non-state actors during humanitarian emergencies, and the role they specifically play in ensuring that services are delivered to some of the most vulnerable people living in informal settlements.
We hope you enjoy.
Rashee Mehra [01:45] Welcome to the Covid Collective's podcast. This podcast is part of International Institute of Environment and Development's project on the lessons that state and non-state relief efforts during COVID-19 offer to social protection for informal settlements post-crisis from India and Zimbabwe.
I'm Rashee Mehra, your host for the podcast, and we are joined today by Juhi Jain, the deputy director for Centre for Advocacy and Research, and Dr Gautam Bhan, the associate dean of the School of Human Development at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.
Welcome, both of you.
Gautam, I'd like to kick off the podcast by asking you if you could tell the listeners about the work of the Delhi Coordinated Relief Network, how it started in 2021 during the second wave of COVID, and what was it able to achieve?
Dr Gautam Bhan [02:32] Sure. So it's a pleasure to be here, thank you for having me.
So the Delhi Coordinated Network actually occurred in the second year of the COVID lockdowns. And what had happened was that as the second round of lockdowns began to begin, we had already seen in the first year of COVID how deep food insecurity had become during the lockdowns because of obvious reasons of access and vulnerability.
And while mutual aid efforts by non-state actors had been very large in the first year as well, in Delhi, in the second year, in order to do things a bit better, a set of organisations – about 40 or so organisations – came together and decided to coordinate all their food delivery efforts. And this coordinated effort was thought of as the Delhi Coordinated Food Relief Network.
And the logic of it was basically that in the first year of COVID we were all scrambling. We were trying to get food, we were in crisis response mode, we were unsure of how to procure food, we were unsure of how to move food because there were restrictions on mobility, we were not sure who was going where, we were wondering if all the food was ending up in the same place and we were missing those in need.
We weren't... actually none of us were really worried about excess food being given because these were times of such deep vulnerability. We were really worried about not reaching areas or communities that were being left out of the circuits. Because many organisations were doing what they could where they could.
So in the second year of the lockdowns we decided that we would try and make sure that we reached as many people as possible, as sustainably as possible, which also meant being able to reach the same families – not just one time, but reach them in one month and then return to them in the next month. So there could be some sustained support. And we would prevent duplication, we would maximise our reach, we would coordinate our efforts, we would handle lockdown constraints and police permissions and procurement easily.
So these 40 or so organisations came together, and all of us worked together to pull together a centralised procurement that was then distributed across the city in different demands.
And there were a very wide range of organisations. There were non-governmental organisations, there were societies and trusts etc, there were worker federations, there were registered unions, there were informal, unregistered collectives, there were neighbourhood associations.
So I think one of the interesting things about the network also was that it had a mix of organisations that represented spatial associations, places from neighbourhoods and communities, they represented welfare and religious organisations, they were... represented worker unions. And so this mix really allowed us to have a very wide representation of both communities, but also different types of folks in the city.
And I think for Delhi the two key things I would say is it covered different kinds of informal workers – you know, across domestic work, waste work, construction work, home-based workers – and it covered different types of settlements – informal settlements, resettlement colonies, colonies in the peripheries of the city, more vulnerable and low-income neighbourhoods, also neighbourhoods that were marked by particular social vulnerabilities on the lines of caste or gender or religion, which was very important in Delhi at that time. Because these were the fault lines we had noticed in the first year, you know, that particular communities, particular places, were likely to be left behind.
So the network came together in order to coordinate delivery action at a larger scale.
Rashee Mehra [06:14] And in a city state like Delhi, what are some of the challenges of doing work like this?
Dr Gautam Bhan [06:20] So I think one of the things to remember about Delhi is that it's a slightly odd configuration in the Indian governance landscape. So, like a lot of capital cities in the world – Bangkok, Manila, Mexico City – the capital region is neither a full state, or what would be called a province or a region elsewhere, but nor is it a city. So it's a little bit governed in the middle. So Delhi is simultaneously governed by the central government institutions, but also elected state government institutions, and then the municipal third layer of governance. And what it means then is that there's a lot of institutional plurality in the way the city is governed.
And historically in Indian cities, one of the things that's always been difficult for all Indian cities is that our municipal layer of governance is typically weak. You know, there’s a long history about this – about our constitutional settlement, about other things – but in many other cities in the world, the mayor of the city, for example, is a hugely powerful figure. It's not true of Indian cities. So many Indian urbanists have often said that Indian cities are run by state governments, you know, run by the province in some way.
So Delhi has a particular difficulty sometimes in coordinating across even its basic administrative categories, neighbourhoods, wards, district zones, because there's this mix of bureaucracy at two different levels in a mix of two governments. It can make coordination quite difficult.
Rashee Mehra [07:46] Juhi, CFAR is one of the founding members of the network and was one of the biggest financial aid disperser[s] to the network. How and why did CFAR decide to do this work with so many civil society organisations?
Juhi Jain [08:01] Thank you, Rashee, for having me here.
We decided to work with the network because the learnings from the first phase, as Gautam has already communicated, you know, we were all scrambling for different things. And this coordinated effort enabled us to reach people we were not able to reach and which the governments would not have been able to reach.
So the learnings from the first phase were actually carried out in the second phase, and having a coordinated group of, Gautam is saying 40 but I think there were many more who joined us on the way, we were able to reach every nook and corner of the city, which is as vast as, you know, 33 million people and reach to the most needy communities, most marginalised groups – both spatially, occupationally, gender-wise, also caste-wise, also people living on the peripheries of the city, but also people who were neither in Delhi or in the neighbouring state, these people were living on the margins. So we were able to, you know, reach out to many, many groups.
We were also able to reach out to very excluded people, which includes all your ethnic communities, all your nomadic communities, migrants on the move, your sex workers, your trans communities, your leprosy-affected people.
So what I'm trying to say is that the whole range of people who otherwise would have been excluded across for various reasons, [we] were able to reach.
So we decided... and also this was one factor, and the second was that when you work with a network you are able to decentralise the process of distribution. And I think that works for the advantage of everybody because not a single organisation has resources to do that. So when you're decentralising things – and I firmly believe that decentralisation at every level helps – it helps to, you know, coordinate the effort much more. So, and because the need was so huge and we were not disaster-ready, you know, the coordination between the partners helped.
Rashee Mehra [09:56] So such large amounts of ration kits, you know, 76,000-plus ration kits were distributed. How did CFAR sort of manage the logistics of this work?
Juhi Jain [10:09] We did not manage the logistics alone. We managed the finances of the entire process, the logistics were, you know, managed by the network people. For example, the line listing was done by community groups and partners who were on the ground. Then the next level was procurement was done by different partners who were CSO partners and networks and informal networks, which were in different districts of Delhi or in different locations or in different settlements. And then local vendors were actually brought on board who... so the procurement was done at a local level.
It was, again, a decentralised system. Only the finances were centralised because you are reporting to a government authority, you are reporting to a donor, you are reporting, you know, against the income tax rules or the rules of, you know, governance of the financial aid in the country. So that is the process which was centralised.
But the partners got together and there were, you know, seven or eight coordinating partners who actually facilitated the process of financial, you know, management. And that is the model which worked for us.
Rashee Mehra [11:13] And how was the balance of demand sort of done? Because, you know, at that point of time so many demands were coming to the network, the finances were limited. How was that sort of decided, especially over such, you know, so many organisations that were part of it?
Juhi Jain [11:29] We had created prioritised lists of people. So we asked organisations who were submitting or sharing lists with us to prioritise the needs because they know the people they are working with at best. And within those organisations also prioritise on the basis of the, you know, work they were doing in the communities with community partners.
So if there was a community where we had trans persons living and the partner said that, ‘they have to be prioritised’, we would accept that.
So, and also across organisations, you know, we tried to, you know, bring in the principle of being fair to everybody. So we had allocated quotas for organisations, and if there was something extra with somebody else in the kitty we would redistribute it.
So I think that model worked for us.
Dr Gautam Bhan [12:12] And I think just to add to that, I think the other thing that helped is all of the allocations to all the organisations where the demand was raised, we had a weekly Saturday meeting, the demands were raised in a public forum, they were all put on a Google Sheet that everybody had access to.
So I think one of the things which really stayed with me as a lesson from this – very often people feel if you have a complex network that you—everyone has to get the same amount for it to be fair. And actually what everyone articulated is that as long as the principles of deciding who got what and how much could be given were transparent, and that the Sheet was shared with everybody, that there were no requests made privately, that everyone could see who was getting what and say, ‘how far can I go?’, and everyone would then accept it. So the idea of justice was that the process was fair.
So a large waste-picker federation, for example, that had tens of thousands of members said to us, ‘we have 30,000 members, but we will ask you for 8,000 kits because we understand that we can't take 30,000 kits of the whole thing’. And everyone else was all right with the federations of waste-pickers between them taking those kits because their membership was much larger than some of the others.
So I think the lesson about a lot of it is, it is about the transparency of the process more than any particular kind of process. We could have evenly said everyone gets 500 kits, but that would have then not allowed the prioritisation on differential vulnerability.
So I think that for us the fact that everyone could come together, and we voted on those decisions, we agreed on those decisions, and… people self-limited. So in some ways, actually, it felt a lot like a commons. There was a kind of self-regulation and self-governance, and any amount of those disagreements that happened were very much, I think, in some ways resolved together.
And the fact that every Saturday at four o'clock you knew there was a meeting, so there's something to say you showed up online, I think that helped a lot in terms of those processes.
So and I think the last thing to think about that also is that we didn't have to make so many compromises because we centralised the finance. Because what happened in a way is that many of those organisations, or groups, or people, got access to resources that were much higher than they would have gotten had they tried to fundraise on their own.
And this is what I think the network's second importance is. We were able to create a stockpile of food rations that was just much bigger than would have existed. And the reason why people wanted to support us is because they saw the network.
So that's the virtuous cycle. You make a network, people trust you with large-scale stocks, the more stocks you have, the less anyone has to compromise on needs.
So in most cases, we were able to give people the number of kits they asked for. There were very few cases where we had to sort of draw lines collectively on that.
Rashee Mehra [15:02] Gautam, apart from distributing ration kits, many network members started community kitchens. Could you tell us more about this model and its long-term efficacy for providing food security in vulnerable communities?
Dr Gautam Bhan [15:15] No, absolutely. I would say for every community kitchen that was established during the pandemic, there should have been 50 more. I mean, these were models that actually we... they work pre-pandemic, they are localised, they are labour-intensive, they draw on social networks, they offer enterprise and employment to folks, they are customisable for./.. you know, in the lockdown conditions they represented. the most proximate geography of relief – you could walk to a community kitchen in your neighbourhood, you don't have to encounter police, you don't have to encounter anyone in charge of, you know, enforcing a very, very strict lockdown.
So community kitchens, actually the difficulty was that they needed some kind of stronger state support than was available at that time. Because, remember, community kitchens cook on a daily cycle, which means that you need a daily resource supply chain. That supply chain during lockdown conditions was very hard.
The network tried to push many proposals to recognise community kitchens to the state at that point, but they were not able to respond.
But I think that in other work that we did, for example in Kerala, where that decentralisation like Juhi was saying of governance was stronger, existing community kitchens became the bedrock social infrastructure of relief.
And I think this is where the other sort of ironic lesson from the network success is a bad one, which is that the network should not have been so required. We should have had decentralised social infrastructures that did not require a network to come into place. And so you come back to the same principle, the stronger your social institutions were before-crisis, the less you had to do relief. And the weaker your social institutions were before-crisis, the more you had to step up for relief.
So in a way, the size of our network is a poor reflection on our preparedness, like Juhi was saying, we were not disaster-ready.
So community kitchens to me are exactly the kind of decentralised local infrastructure that should be part of a city's food security system. And relief was an opportunity to pick them up. They weren't picked up as much as they did, but the about 20 or so that ran, ran very successfully. I think they ran very successfully, I think they were locally run, they were locally managed, they were able to…
You know, it goes back to what Juhi were saying about this principle – localised communities know the maps of those communities, right? And in many ways they're able to reach in and get to people who even our networks are not reaching from the outside. So I think it really goes back to that principle of being as decentralised as possible as a model. And I think it was a missed opportunity to not take community kitchens seriously.
Now, a lot of Indian states are building public state kitchens like the Indira Canteen in Karnataka or the Amma canteen in Chennai. And I think that those systems are a way of becoming more disaster-ready vis-à-vis food insecurity. And I think it's important to ramp up those kinds of systems from now and not wait for a pandemic relief to remind us how essential they are.
Rashee Mehra [18:18] Juhi, you've worked for a long time in informal settlements in, you know, in Delhi and other cities in the country, and you've seen these communities go through repeated shocks – you know, it could be evictions, it could be floods, it could be now the pandemic that we are talking about.
What do you think the recovery of these communities post-2021 has been like and what remain the challenges in this recovery?
Juhi Jain [18:43] Well, that's a very, very sort of, you know, heart-wrenching question, and also the answer is equally because I don't think the communities have recovered. Because, you know, the shock was, firstly, they were not disaster-ready; secondly, communities in any case, you know, did not have access to schemes, social entitlement services, food insecurity was a very, very big issue.
And as Gautam was saying that, you know, and I think it all bounces back to the fact that there is no decentralised local system of governance in a city like Delhi where it should be. And there are very, very successful models in other count... in other cities. I know that they have been able to rectify a lot of these issues, but in Delhi unfortunately we have not been able to do that. So the communities are still reeling under the, you know, trauma of the pandemic.
And then after that, you know, I am just being a little very sort of critical here, that the mode of operations for the government is that you have a pandemic, you have relief, you have some sort of financial security, then you vaccinate people, and then you push them into livelihood, and they'll take a loan, and they will sort of become self-sufficient.
It's not as simple as that, you know, because every process takes a long time to unfold – people have to engage with it, people have to understand it. And the fact that, you know, whatever little savings people had were finished and the jobs were not easy to get back, many units also closed down. So the plight of the worker is still very, very precarious.
After that, you know, the fear of, you know, being able to save some money which they have has gone. But now the fear of survival is the utmost thing. And that is why communities are still reeling under that. And I think it will still take a long time for them to recover.
Whatever support has been coming to the community now is for development in general. It is not a targeted, you know, support for post-COVID recovery. Because I do know that,,, because CFAR works with informal slums, a lot of organisations are giving you money for, you know, pursuing, say, health or pursuing livelihood, but you need a handholding, you need a sustained effort for post-recovery. And that recovery should not be targeted to either livelihood or health or to some other mode of, you know, development agenda, it should be focused on the overall holistic recovery, you know, of a family, of a community, and that is what is missing.
So communities will, you know, bear this brunt for, say, another few years to say the least.
Dr Gautam Bhan [21:23] Yeah, and I think, you know, we were looking at domestic workers in a place like that, and one of the things we found is that even if income and earnings normalise, they're now normalising against significant unpaid debt and gone... lost savings. And so the question is what recompensates for the loss of savings? Just because work and earning has restarted, but it's starting on a completely different foundation and that kind of targeted recovery kind of stimulus or surplus did not come to the poorest working communities.
And I think, you know, one of the things also goes back to this question of pre-crisis social protection. We've often said that in places where there is deep structural vulnerability you don't need a pandemic, shocks are very much everyday life – they are injury and illness and unemployment and marriage and costs.
So I think it's also important to sort of say that when you have patchwork social protection systems, the scale of the crisis is as banal and ordinary as everyday life and then you don't require a pandemic. So a lot of the inequalities that we have seen, a lot of the struggles we have seen, are also pre-pandemic. And I think this continuity of the fact that our pre-pandemic inequalities were already like a shock for many communities.
This is important to underscore because I think very often we sort of treat COVID as an interruption in otherwise what was a functioning social protection system. And I think it's very important to be clear that we did not have a functioning social protection system.
Governments did try their damndest. I mean, no one is saying that they did not, right? But you take one classic example. India has a National Food Security Act, right? Which is one of the largest food security acts in the world. And you... many households are covered by subsidised or nearly free core staples. In urban areas, enrolment into this Food Security Act is capped at 40% of residents. Now, where is the logic of this cap coming from?
What COVID showed us is that the number of households that are right on the doorstep of sudden food insecurity are 60-70% of your city. So this 40% cap became a joke during COVID, right? And it showed the limitation of our system. The government of Delhi tried very admirably in the first year and created an entire system of distribution to people beyond the 40%, and covered another 30%, right? But the fact is that they shouldn't have to.
And I think this is where that question that if there's something to ask of COVID, it is not just to say, ‘Are we disaster-ready?’, it is to say, ‘Do we have an adequate safety net for residents of our cities?’. And in India the safety net in urban areas particularly is a deeply fragmented and torn kind of patchwork – there are holes in it, its edges are frayed, it is... forget comprehensiveness, it doesn't hold.
And so therefore that problem is going to remain even if COVID doesn't come. You still have families slipping below this net on a constant basis, right? So I think even when I think of recovery, I keep thinking of recovering to what? You can't recover back to a pre-COVID timeline and go back to a patchwork safety net. You've got to recover to something else. And I think that's another way to think about that idea.
Rashee Mehra [24:43] Gautam, as part of this project we're also looking at the work of Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union, a domestic workers’ union based in the city of Jaipur. Could you tell us the similarities and differences in the way Delhi Coordinated Network worked and then versus RMKU?
Dr Gautam Bhan [25:00] Mhmm, no, so the RMKU union is one of the largest urban domestic workers’ unions in the country. It has almost 16,000 active members in the city of Jaipur alone. And they're all domestic workers, which means they're informal workers who work without contract and without social and labour protections, and domestic work is known for this in general.
So I think some key differences. In Delhi, one good thing that the government did is that even in its own programmes and also, of course, in the programme, non-state actors, the distinction between the Delhi resident and the migrant was very thin, right? So while not having a Delhi address identity proof made a difference in some cases, in many cases relief was a moment, which was our big learning, where that line between what's the address on your identity proof – are you from here or not? – for a moment became much thinner. And I think it has hardened again after COVID has gone.
In Rajasthan, which is a state to the west of Delhi, that resident migrant line was very sharp. And most of the domestic worker member unions... union members are actually people who, while they have lived in Jaipur for decades, their identity proofs are still not of the city.
And it goes back to that core sense of this is a different kind of vulnerability, right? So even if you're earning well, even if you are settled in a city, you still do not belong to that city, you become a kind of permanent migrant in a way, right? These are not people who are cycling through the city for six months/one year. 80% of, you know, the members that we talked to had been in Jaipur for more than 10 years, but still identification-wise did not belong.
So the union had to struggle a lot, I think, in terms of making the state see migrant domestic workers and say, ‘The relief has to be given here’. You can't say that their relief has to be taken what address is written on their, you know, ID card. So they mobilised to...
You know, when the Rajasthan government was offering cash transfers to informal workers they ran into the classic delivery problem. You're saying you want to give cash transfers to domestic workers, how do you find them? There's no employment records, no employment contracts, there's no employer, and a single employer to give because every domestic worker works in an individual home.
So the union put together 2,000 domestic workers with their bank account details, got them to the labour department and had that transfer. The union made sure that the surveys and data of the domestic workers reached every different network that was giving relief. The union intervened when landlords were asking domestic workers to leave homes in the middle of the pandemic because they were unable to pay rent because they were not earning, right?
So the union was a really interesting actor because what it did was that, as a membership-based organisation, it acted in a way like the state does. It was accountable to a public, the demands... union members felt empowered to make demands of the union. There was a sense of trust, they were there... in fact, the union was the first point of call for most members, which is saying something about our state, right? Which, when you feel that there is.
But I think it's a very powerful indication of what worker organisations can do as organisations that can hold the delivery of social protection outside crisis. Because... and especially these types of work organisations that have large membership-based formats, you know, they're,,, in the literature they're often called membership-based organisations and federations unions.
Because what you have there is an inbuilt system of accountability and an inbuilt relationship, a social contract of a certain kind. The network is able to act at scale and act quickly, but it will always be limited temporarily. The network does not have a public that stays beyond the moment of crisis. In fact, one of the nicest things about our network was that when the lockdowns were lifted, we had a meeting and we closed operations. Because one thing you don't want is to be a guest that overstays their welcome, you know?
And I think it's... networks have to have specific purposes that they can come together, it makes them effective, and they should not stretch those purposes into other things. They don't have a mandate of accountability to a specific public, the unions do.
So I think that for the future it is networks should be able to come and go, there should be light, there should be platforms, but it is organisations like the Mahila Kamgar Union that have the ability to be long-standing institutions that work with communities to which they are then accountable and that can make demands of them. Because I think that's the future trajectory.
I think neither Juhi and I would say that the answer is networks. No, networks are excellent crisis-relief mechanisms to act in coordination at scale. They are not sustainable forms. Because they can't embed, I think, locally enough. And if decentralisation is our principle then those organisations are better suited.
And I think the question is, what all types of organisations exist like this? Unions are one example. What about neighbourhood associations? What about identity-based associations? What is this world of non-state actors who can work with the state – because none of us want to let the state off the hook, the idea is not that we replace the state, but who can work with the state – to repair these patchworks that we've been talking about?
Rashee Mehra [30:18] Juhi, we know that the second wave of COVID in Delhi had a very high death toll, you know, and yet, you know, the delivery of aid in this humanitarian emergency sort of continued.
What social protection measures can the state offer frontline workers like activists? Because they are, you know, we recognise sort of doctors and nurses rightfully so as frontline workers, but what about the community-based organisers and, you know, sort of activists who go down and actually undertook this delivery of relief?
Juhi Jain [30:50] I think, you know, just taking off from what Gautam was saying, that the governance of the city should be in the hands of people who are in the communities. And even something like health, which was very critical in the, you know, second phase and people were not able to get… But the frontline workers were there at the centre of it. Similarly, community organisers, community-based organisations can be trained as, you know, paramedics or para health workers, which can reach the service directly to the last mile.
And that is something… Health is completely missing in the city, for that matter. The few Mahila clinics which are there, or the few public health dispensaries, or the Delhi government dispensaries, which are there, can offer only a basic sort of infrastructure and a basic, you know, personal team to look after it. But, you know, for example, if you have Mahila Arogya Samitis, which you have in most states but we don't have in Delhi, if you train community leaders as – or community members as – paramedics and you have Mahila Arogya Samitis, then you can actually reach a lot of health services and the government can, you know, work on a decentralised model even in health.
So everywhere what we, I mean, somebody like CFAR will advocate is that people who are living in the cities, or people who are at the margins of the city, or people who are living as settled population in the city in informal slums, but should be empowered enough and facilitated to become a part of the governance of the city across all the indicators of, you know, life – whether it is livelihood, whether it is health, whether it is food security. Because they are the ones who can actually lead that. And they should work with municipal government offices, they should work with the government ward-level institutions to sustain and to take it forward.
And networks like… We did a lot of work on relief as well as, you know, getting oxygen cylinders and health... addressing health emergencies. But that is not our role. We were only filling up a gap which was there. And as, you know, well-meaning people of CSOs and networks, we do come around every time there is a crisis because we owe our allegiance both to the community and also to the systems of government which are working. And we aim to support both of them, because we are the facilitators who, you know, who are there in the middle.
But that is not our role. Our role is, you know, this is a role which the government has to take where they work directly with communities and empower them for every life-enabling indicator to get addressed, shaped and to be taken forward.
Rashee Mehra [33:26] I want to ask this question to both of you. Now that you look back at the COVID crisis of Delhi 2021, what do you think could have averted this food insecurity that we saw? You know, what could have the state actors done… do now, that wasn't done before, to strengthen social protection before a crisis like the pandemic?
Juhi Jain [33:50] Remove the cap of 40% on the ration card, that's the first thing. Then this entire thing of one nation, one ration card. Universalise access to food. Food is a basic necessity – everybody should have access to it despite, you know, the fact that you are a resident of Uttar Pradesh, or Delhi, or Bihar, or Bengal, or even somewhere else.
It should be universal. You should have vigilance committees, you know, who are actually monitoring the distribution. You are supposed to have local networks who are actually ensuring supplies on time.
So many things in the food network have to be streamlined. And if that happens we should be able to overcome the entire, you know, crisis of food. Because I firmly believe that food is something which nobody should have to give and nobody should have to ask. It is something which is an entitlement, you know?
And like Gautam said, you know, we have the biggest democracy and we have the biggest, you know, act on food security. And if it can happen in other cities, why not in Delhi? I have seen that in many places in Odisha and Rajasthan, and even in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the food insecurity to the extent it was in Delhi was not there. Because we work in across states and we found that people were able to get... at least from the government system they were able to get ration, which we were not able to get because of x-y-z reasons.
So if that can be streamlined it would really help. So, you know, maybe create a local monitoring committee for food. That will also work. So we had in fact submitted, you know, many proposals for that where we had said that at the ward level we will be creating a decentralised network for food management, but it never got sort of, you know, taken forward.
But these are structures which we can create, there are models which can be created, and that will be a community-led model. Again, it has to be bottom-led and not top-led. So that will streamline the process of delivery.
But definitely the 40% cap I'm sort of… You know, really saying that should be… Because you cannot, you know, give a cap on food security for that matter.
Dr Gautam Bhan [36:00] Yeah, no, I totally agree. And I think… I think one of the things that… I mean, the word we're using is insecurity, right? We're not saying hunger. And I think what happens right now is that our approach to our social protection systems for food is based on preventing hunger. And there's a big difference in not being hungry and being food secure, let alone being healthy and having access to nutritious food. We should be debating on how to move to levels of nutrition, we should not be debating the distinction between hunger and food insecurity.
I think that one of the things about that is absolutely a broader universal expansion of access to food, but I think that a lot of social protection systems in India also remain too state-centric. By which I don't mean that I don't want the state to invest heavily, but I think the state doesn't have to be the person that both invests heavily, and controls the delivery infrastructure, and runs every kind of ration shop, because you will always then hit against that principle of decentralisation.
So I think one of the things is that if you expand… If you had a 40% enrolment, say, in the National Food Security Act for urban areas, but then you had a network of community kitchens, then you could also have a different way to go from 40 to 60 to 80, right? Saying that one part of your population needs fully subsidised access to large scale staples, one part needs occasional food smoothening for consumption crisis. And I think that variability in those models is key.
And I... it goes back to the point of centralisation works very well in procurement, it works very well in financial arrangements, it works poorly in delivery very often. So I think it's important to think about which parts of the system should be decentralised. What are the multiple modes in which to access food, where you don't have an overreliance only on one model of delivery, right?
I think the other thing about, you know, thinking about food security in terms also of climate change is that one has to start thinking now about food production systems differently. Thinking about the urban as a site that not just consumes food but produces food. And this idea of community kitchens that are linked to local growth and community agriculture and urban agriculture and peri-urban agriculture. Delhi has lots of possibilities for urban agriculture that go unexplored, right?
And I'm talking about this particularly in working-class neighbourhoods who have that relationship. You think of [the] number of settlements we know who farm by the Yamuna River, whose farming is considered encroachment and illegality and is not seen or given place.
So I think what's important is to also then start thinking about the urban as a site of food production. And then again you need localised spaces of decentralised distribution and circulation of that food.
And I think the last point is to take one very strong lesson. Because debates around thinking of taking on food insecurity and other social protection through either basic income or cash transfers as opposed to in-kind food supplies are picking up.
I think one of the things that COVID absolutely reminds us is that for food, access to actual food where the entitlement is given in kind is absolutely critical. I think it would have been... we would have had a much greater disaster had we switched to a cash transfer system of market access to food staples.
So I think that balance between understanding, you know, how to protect and universalise an entitlement.
But we need a lot more innovation in general in India on innovations and how to deliver social protection entitlements. We have a lot of conversation on what entitlements we should have. We don't experiment with models on delivery. We're not looking at different forms of partnership the state can take with unions and with communities. We're not looking at what the right way to decentralise is.
Even when you see large-scale food security programmes, the idea is the state will build 300 more kitchens, the state will build… If 300 kitchens are to be built, half of them should be built and owned and run by community cooperatives.
India has such a powerful tradition of cooperative enterprise in milk, in craft, right? I think it's important for us to learn from our own traditions of those enterprises and bring them into the delivery of social protection systems.
Because I also feel like at this point, even the states… And I do believe that, you know, say during the pandemic, the government of Delhi with every integrity tried its damndest to do whatever it had to do, right? But I think that what... something that our systemic limits are telling us is we've got to try and deliver in different ways. We've got to expand our networks and trust other institutional deliver. And we've got to do it by decentralising to communities.
The thing is that when we do that, right now our trend is that we decentralise to communities, give them all the responsibility and authority, and give them no support. And that's where that... so that's the other thing, that decentralisation is a sharing – not just of authority but of resources. It's not a downloading or abdication of state responsibility.
So I've been thinking about this more as forms of public action instead of just state delivery. It's absolutely public. It has to be regulated by the public, has to be seen as part of social protection, but the action has to shift in the way it's reaching. Because the state is always going to have those same blind spots – particular kinds of workers, particular kinds of communities, particular peripheries, particular settlements. And I think you have to allow those communities to come and meet you halfway and become your partners in delivery. And I think that's the way I want to think a little bit about this.
Rashee Mehra [41:38] Finally, I wanted to ask both of you that, you know, it's been two years and the network, of course, lives on, like you've both said, in other forms as well. So, you know, partnerships have been built and there is a memory of that partnership and, you know, now other kinds of work is being done.
What do you think are the kinds of sort of either training or knowledge systems that network members need to build to truly become, you know, social infrastructures for doing public good like this?
Juhi Jain [42:11] I would say that, you know, whatever lessons we have learned over the last two, you know, pandemic years should all be contributing to how to strengthen the, you know, system to deliver in decentralised ways with participation of communities that those are lessons, you know, networks like us should be documenting, should be decentralisation, doing innovations.
Also, you know, across the country, there are many, many models which have come up, like Gautam has just shared, that there are many models of, say, community kitchens or maybe decentralised delivery of food. So all those models should be, you know, documented, brought together, shared with state actors, you know, put in the public domain for everybody to learn from. Because we ourselves have a lot of resources which we can.
And all the lessons from the pandemic surely, because the lessons surely show us that, you know, the civil society cannot fill up for the state or for the community. Both have to do their own parts. But it is not like either or or, it is a partnership which needs to be developed.
And I think one... another thing which the network can do is to see how do we strengthen local governance at the ward level, at the community level so that there is a layer of, you know, decentralisation which happens, and which can deliver services to people and create a safety net for people who are living in the city? Because that is something which if it doesn't happen then, you know, pandemics will come and go, we will still be in the same way.
If things normalise after five years, we will still be saying that there is no social protection for people because, you know, there are patchy deliveries of service, patchy delivery of food, patchy delivery of health. How do you create a system which brings a safety net in the organisations which are working on the ground, or in the systems which are existing on the ground?
So those models I think should be presented, scaled up and also help the government to adopt them. That is the advocacy which we all need to do. That how do we learn from whatever we have, you know, lost? How do we learn from our mistakes? How do we learn from the successes we have taken?
Akshaya Patra, for example, is such a good model. The Kudumbashree is such a good model. These are models from our own cities. Why can't we scale them up at the city level in other cities? Especially for Delhi, I think we really need to do high-scale advocacy with not only the municipal bodies or with the governments, but also with other sector partners, other government agency, other bodies. Because that is a time when everybody has to come together, put their thinking hats [on] and see what is it that we need to scale? What is it that we need to adopt?
So this is something which I would think is the role of the network now.
Dr Gautam Bhan [44:59] No, I think adding to that is, I mean, I have a tangential thought in my mind, but it just... it's one of the abiding lessons I've had from this.
I think it's also really important for actors in movements and organisations to remember actually that the pandemic showed us certain forms of trust and solidarity and working together that actually I think we were struggling with for a while. I think that what's also happened is… One of the really nice things about that network was the way in which everyone came together, and for that period of time there was a real horizontal sense of trust and mutual respect and recognition. Doesn't mean there aren't disagreements and political different worldviews etc.
But I think that one of the things that has stayed with me is that if one is to claim and impact on things like delivery and these kinds of partners and the lessons we want the state to learn. And I'm in total agreement with you Juhi on what the lessons the state must learn. But I think that one of the things I want us to learn outside the state is to remember that partnership is not easy, it takes work, but there are real gains from a certain belief and a certain trust and a certain mutual recognition and solidarity.
And I think that the one thing the pandemic showed us is that it's still possible, you know? There are many ways in which... I haven't seen that kind of cross-organisation mobilisation coming together for a long time. I mean, that is my emotional memory of the pandemic, of the network, is that. And I think it's an important lesson.
So actually that's a question in my mind. How do you take trust and solidarity seriously as lessons to be learned? How do you make those values more widespread? What prevents these kinds of solidarity and networks from happening more frequently, happening more widely? There were many other... you know, so to say one thing, I think that in Delhi we did better than other Indian cities, is the other cities struggled to make networks like this. And so the gaps in those relief deliveries are very powerful. When the state could not step in, the non-state relief networks are very patchy in many places, they weren't able to fulfil those gaps and it led to some very significant vulnerabilities.
So I am left with this abiding lesson of a reaffirmation of the value of trust and solidarity. And I think that I'm... I would like us all to think a little bit... remember its value and think very operationally about how trust is built. Because I also don't feel like trust is something that happens. It has to be nurtured, it has to be practised, it has to be built, because something has to hold solidarity.
And I think when you live in societies that are marked by deep inequalities that's not an easy thing to do. There are genuine reasons why the lack of trust exists, not just with the state but between citizens – there’s reasons of inequality and discrimination and prejudice. But I think work to build trust is something that is pivotal.
And that is one of the lessons I'd like to take from the pandemic because, you know, if those moments of crises are not places that allow certain reevaluations and reflections, then we're losing some very valuable opportunities to do so.
Rashee Mehra [48:25] Thank you, both of you. That's a great place to end, to think that, you know, trust can be built between citizens and, you know, we can continue to sort of fill the patchwork and fix the cities that we have, you know, in India and across the world.
Thank you so much both of you for joining us.
Finally, our maps, policy briefs and videos of the work of the Delhi Coordinated Relief are all available on the IIED website.
This website also has the work of Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union and of our partners in Zimbabwe. Do have a look at these as well and know more about the lessons of social protection from COVID and its impacts.
Thank you, Juhi and Gautam, once again. Thanks.
Dr Gautam Bhan [49:04] Thank you very much for having us
Juhi Jain [49:05] Thank you
Host [49:11] More information on the work of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Delhi during the pandemic is available at IIED.org/Covid-Collective.
Host [49:26] You can find more episodes of the Make Change Happen podcast at IIED.org/podcast, and you can browse the rest of our website for more on IIED and our work.