Despite COVID and conflict, Kashmiris keep food coming
SRINAGAR, KASHMIR — While much of India started starving under its self-imposed COVID-19 restrictions last year, one place facing both political and health-driven lockdowns kept people fed through home-grown resilience.
The whole nation went into lockdown on four hours’ notice on March 24, 2020, as part of its attempt to stem the COVID pandemic. In Jammu and Kashmir, the mountainous region at the northern tip of India’s diamond-shaped subcontinent, that came on top of a military occupation that paralyzed public life in 2019. The majority-Muslim population has been at odds for decades with the federal government in a nation that’s 80% Hindu.
Yet Kashmir is among the top 10 in the country in terms of food security and nutrition. It is also among the bottom five when it comes to the burden of multiple malnutrition, according to the Indian government’s own analysis.
So even when the main streets have been vacated by army patrols and general fear of infection, Kashmiris found ways to keep one another fed. A crisis like COVID-19 was just one more trigger launching local community networks that have for years automatically become operational when any tragedy hits Kashmir.
The mosque steps in
Nestled inside the bylanes of Sonawar district in Srinagar city, where houses are locked in each other’s reflections, stands Bonamsar mosque. The 59-year-old imam here, Nazir Ahmad, says despite COVID’s difficult-to-follow protocols and the restrictions on movement due to the military lockdown, his mosque did what they always do — ensure that no Kashmiri in their locality slept on an empty stomach.
“Because of COVID, we couldn’t go to each house,” Ahmad said, “But we knew an auto or sumo driver, a daily laborer, a vegetable vendor, or a painter, or migrant worker needed help.”
All of them were given somewhere around 2,000-2,500 rupees (about $30) per month in addition to a package of rice, wheat, spices and tea that would last two months in an average household of four. For those who needed immediate attention, the mosque sent kits with cooked food. At the peak of COVID here, in May and June, hundreds of people received these kits from the mosque.
As the pandemic advanced, mosque-based Bait-ul-Mals (Arabic for “house of wealth” or treasury) and other local organizations provided oxygen concentrators and nebulizers to hospitals and clinics. But these religious centers particularly focused on the most basic human need in a crisis — food.
Since early Islam, the concept of Bait-ul-Mal has existed in the society in varying forms. It mostly acts as an institution to pay for public works and charitable needs. Many Muslim-populated countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have government-supported Bait-ul-Mals in place. But in Kashmir, it is the common Kashmiris who donate to this institution.
In the Bonamsar mosque, every Friday, a box is kept for people to place contributions. On special holidays such as Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha, people donate more than they do otherwise. This May on Eid-ul-Fitr, the mosque collected 250,000 rupees ($3,300) and spent it on food kits and ration packets for the deprived. About 350 households surround the mosque. During every crisis there are usually 30 to 40 families that are struggling.
“We have been preparing these kits for the last three years now,” Ahmad said. “First, it was the lockdown, then COVID.”
The private sector adapts
Kashmir managed to stay isolated and safe during the virus’ first wave in 2020, but the second wave that summer shook the foundations of Kashmir society and its already scrambling health care.
By the end of August 2020, India was the second-most pandemic-affected nation in the world, with 4.2 million cases, according to the Global Report on Food Crises September 2020 report.
Kashmir incurred 326,000 COVID cases to date, with 4,411 deaths for a 1.3% fatality rate, compared with the capitol New Delhi’s 1.7% rate.
In 2019, Rayees Dar and his wife, Nida Rehman, started a food service called Tiffin Aaw (which roughly translates into your meal is here in Kashmiri) in Srinagar. A tiffin is the distinctive set of round tin containers popular throughout Asia as lunch boxes.
Initially, Dar’s mother was the primary cook. As the business grew, it hired two professional Kashmiri waza (chefs) who worked out of Dar’s house. The idea was to serve warm, healthy, home-cooked meals when everything else around was shut to working-class young people who didn’t have time to pack their own lunches. The business would also compete with the fast-food offerings attributed to a concerning rise in obesity and other diseases in Kashmir.
They launched in the middle of the peak lockdown in 2019 when the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s statehood and placed it under federal control enforced by thousands of armed troops. Because of frequent curfews and internet shutdowns, Kashmiri businesses lost over $5 billion in revenue in one year after August 2019.
Tiffin Aaw faced a similar hit. Then came the COVID pandemic. Even those who could move about now lived in fear of infection.
Dar and Rehman restructured their business to focus exclusively on COVID patients, their attendees, the medical staff, and all those who couldn’t afford to eat because of the pandemic.
Frantic calls from doctors who’d been his customers during the startup’s brief opening forced Dar to take a leap he was not sure would help his business. He started giving away food free of cost.
But he realized if he did all of this from his own pocket, he would not be able to help many in need. Because he wasn’t a registered trust or a foundation in 2020 (but is now), he couldn’t ask for donations.
Instead, his former customers and all those whom he had helped, jumped in to sponsor meals. At the peak of COVID here in May-June 2021, he collected 1.7 million rupees ($23,000). Each day, Tiffin Aaw distributed food kits to between 500 and 850 people. Its kitchen employs 16 people, many college professionals who work part-time because they are blocked from their regular jobs.
“No matter the crisis, food is always what we need as humans,” said Dar, 30. “But it can’t be mere sustenance, or something that just fills your stomach. My food is clean, healthy, preservative- or color-free, filling and tasty.”
Rice is the staple diet here, and an average person in Kashmir consumes 400 grams (about 2 cups) of rice every day. So all Tiffin Aaw’s meals have rice. They also have most of the traditional foods consumed in a normal Kashmiri household: sun-dried vegetables, collard greens and meat.
That mixed diet has contributed to Kashmir’s overall high nutrition compared with the rest of India. As nutritionist Beenish Zehra says, “We tend to eat lot of ‘batta’ (rice) and as recent research has shown, Kashmir consumes 51,000 tons of meat every year.”
So for all COVID meals, Tiffin Aaw deliveries have some mutton or chicken included. The plan now is to set up a booth at each hospital, with its newly launched trust, to ensure free food gets delivered to everyone who can’t afford it.
A “Hunger Watch” survey by India’s Right to Food Campaign in fall 2020 found two-thirds of the respondents from India’s poorest households were eating less nutritious food than they had before the pandemic lockdown. In particular, people were less able to buy fruits, eggs, fish and meat.
“The intense humanitarian crisis that resulted from this almost immediately was a massive explosion of hunger countrywide, beginning with cities and towns,” Right to Food noted in its 2021 report, which blamed the crisis on policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “This eruption of mass hunger was an inevitable outcome of the harsh lockdown, because nine out of 10 workers in India continue to be informal, millions amongst who eat what they earn each day.”
A separate survey of 20,000 migrant workers in Bihar found that close to 60% were unable to ensure two square meals a day for all members of the family in June 2020, with a similar proportion in July. Bihar state is on India’s eastern border at the edge of the Himalaya Mountains, and routinely sent workers to Kashmir before the pandemic lockdown.
“Quarantine measures have disproportionately affected internal (rural-to-urban) migrants in countries such as India, where lockdowns and travel restrictions have created a huge mass of stranded, unemployed internal migrants struggling to return home,” the Global Report on Food Crises noted in its “In Times of COVID-19” report. “The income of informal workers was estimated to have fallen by 22% in the region in the first month of the COVID-19 crisis, causing relative poverty rates of this vulnerable group to rise from 22% before the crisis to 36%.”
Despite being one of the world’s largest food producers, ironically, India is also home to the largest population of hungry people and one-third of the world’s malnourished children. But clearly the issue isn’t availability of food, but access, and centers like Bait-ul-Mal or startups like Tiffin Aaw do help fill this gap.
But charitable food assistance is not a sustainable answer to hunger. As Tiffin Aaw’s Nida says, “at most, we can adopt families, but not the entire society.”