Behind the Workers' Dhaba in Delhi, an Expression of Solidarity Among Workers

Manned by three cooks and scores of volunteers, the community kitchen functions from Delhi University’s north campus to feed migrant workers who have lost their livelihood during the COVID-19 lockdown.

New Delhi: On March 28, a group of citizens came together to launch a Workers’ Dhaba. Their aim was to distribute food among the unorganised and migrant workers left rudderless by the abrupt 21-day nationwide lockdown. Manned by three cooks and scores of volunteers, the community kitchen functions from Delhi University’s north campus. “We are consistently trying to make this lockdown less painful for the working-class people and without the love and contribution made by our well-wishers, this task would have been a difficult task,” says the Workers’ Dhaba Facebook page.

The Dhaba initially directed its efforts in north and northeast parts of Delhi. Since then it has gone on to expand the areas of food distribution, among the workers in Wazirpur, Shastri Nagar and Sarai Kale Khan. The Wire spoke to Naveen Chander, a researcher and member of the citizen’s group to find out more about how the workers’ community kitchen functions, the idea behind it and its plans for the future.

How did the idea of a workers’ dhaba evolve?

Some of us witnessed, with a great deal of concern, the haphazard implementation of the lockdown in Delhi last month. Soon it became clear that the lockdown, for the vast majority of the working people, was not just a matter of medical concern, but of their livelihood and life as well. In a country like ours, where the majority of workers are employed in the informal sector without any form of a written contract, social security, proper housing or other safeguards, access to basic amenities, the lockdown signalled possibilities of mass starvation and even deaths.

Also Read: COVID-19 Lockdown: Over 100 Million Face Food Insecurity If PDS Is Not Universalised

In trying to return home by walking hundreds of miles, the desperate workers were expressing their opinion about the lockdown. As we watched them in the streets, we began consulting each other. We wanted to launch a Workers’ Dhaba – a kitchen or a community kitchen. This idea has been implemented in other forms in the past.

The Workers’ Dhaba is different from the usual community kitchens. This dhaba represents the workers’ community, united in their shared living conditions, and the challenges of surviving the forces of Social Darwinism. There were such initiatives in the past during strikes or struggles in the labour movement. Such struggles, however, are no longer visible on the ground. This initiative is part of the collective efforts of workers to develop a sense of biradari (community) in crises. The idea of a Workers’ Dhaba in that sense is part of a longer history of expressions of solidarity among workers.

The Workers’ Dhaba in North Campus of Delhi University. Photo: Facebook

How does the dhaba function?

The Workers’ Dhaba was conceptualised as a collaborative exercise. People from different backgrounds – teachers, researchers, students, NGO volunteers, other professionals volunteered to help in cooking, packaging and distributing the food, under the banner of Citizen’s Collective for Humanitarian Relief  (CCHR). Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) experts shared their expertise in labour issues in managing the distribution of dry ration at the level of the workers’ neighbourhoods. CEC also helped in many technical issues – such as running an online campaign for funds etc. We also managed to get a small space in North Campus from where we run the kitchen.

In the first two days, we distributed cooked food and water among workers around North Delhi. We quickly understood that migrant workers are the most vulnerable. And we need to address their needs in a focussed manner. By the second day of the lockdown, migrant workers were sent back from the borders. They not only lost their jobs. They were also evicted from their jhuggis and tenements by their landlords. Our first objective was to provide at least one hot meal to everyone who needed it –  especially the migrant workers, the homeless and other most vulnerable groups.

Gradually, we expanded our operations. As things stand today, apart from providing two hot meals to workers every day, we are also distributing packets of dry ration in working class neighbourhoods.

Is the exclusion experienced by migrant workers different from that experienced by other vulnerable groups?

You should understand that while different targeted schemes exist for different socially marginalised groups, what distinguishes migrant workers from them is their exceptionally high degree of exclusion. Most migrant workers are not registered in the host states. Therefore, despite stark poverty, they do not have access to most of the schemes for the poor. Moreover, as they are not local workers, firing them is relatively easy. Coupled with the lack of employment contracts and non-existing labour regulations, migrant workers live in the city’s shadows. Their presence felt but never recognised.

The problem is structural. There are blind spots and deficiencies in the policies introduced by successive governments to deal with the crises as they emerge in different periods. Unless structural issues are addressed, such problems are bound to re-emerge in moments of crisis. Take, for instance, the case of garment workers in Delhi NCR. While distributing relief among garment workers, we came to know that at least 70-80% of the dismissed workers are not registered. So the declaration of the government that workers should not be fired from jobs during the epidemic- is a hollow declaration. There is just no way to ensure that employers do not sack these workers. The same situation operates in other sub-sectors of the informal economy.

In the long term, one must begin by bringing the informal sector under labour law regulations.

What are your future plans? 

We intend to continue our engagement with migrant workers. There are also plans to expand similar solidarity based workers’ kitchens and other experiments in different neighbourhoods of Delhi. Sustaining the campaign in the current form would be difficult. Volunteers are literally risking their lives in distributing relief. So what we require today is professional, centralised structures of relief work, with spaces for initiatives to function at local levels.

We intend to decentralise our approach, set up dhabas in different neighbourhoods, which can be run by workers and the neighbourhood people. We will have to see where such interventions are urgently needed. And whether this can be done after training workers to maintain social distancing and hygiene.

This is a challenge in every working class area. Enforcing social distancing is almost impossible when you have one toilet and a shared water tap for thousands of people. We intend simultaneously to work on health issues by promoting awareness through public education. We have also spoken to the local community to use temple and mosque loudspeakers for this purpose.