Indian-born Vikas Khanna went to New York as an aspiring chef 20 years ago, starting off as a dishwasher and delivery man. He’s now a celebrity chef, has cooked for the Obamas, hosted TV shows with Gordon Ramsay, written 25 books and created sumptuous meals costing nearly 40,000 US dollars each. He’s the former executive chef of Junoon, lauded for its inventive take on traditional Indian cuisine, and has been awarded a Michelin star for seven years in a row.
As the effects of India’s coronavirus lockdown began to play out, Khanna grew restless as millions of out-of-work people became desperate for food. He “wanted to show that solidarity still exists” and so posted an appeal on social media in early April requesting details of people in need and receiving hundreds of responses in no time.
India’s coronavirus lockdown began on the 25th of March. Within hours, hundreds of thousands of newly jobless migrant workers began streaming out of cities desperate to return to their home villages. With businesses shut down across the country, vast numbers of people — many of whom lived and ate where they worked — suddenly found themselves without food and shelter. And given the halt on transportation, they were forced to walk for hundreds of kilometres without food. Dozens even died during these journeys: not of Covid-19 but of hunger.
Vikas Khanna, a man on a mission
My mum lives alone in Amritsar and I thought: what if she needed help and there was no one to help her?Vikas Khanna
Inspired by langar, the large community kitchens of the Gurdwaras, Sikh places of worship, and aided by food donations from various companies across India, Khanna created 58 food stations located in petrol stations in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in the north and east of India respectively, to offer cooked meals to migrant workers on the move. The day before Eid, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the chef’s team also distributed feast kits for more than 200,000 people in Mumbai containing rice, lentils, flour, fruit, vegetables, tea, coffee, spices, sugar, pasta, oil and dried fruit.
Khanna’s initiative #FeedIndia is set to achieve a new milestone. After distributing 7 million meals in May, the threshold of 17 million was reached in June. The initiative has been carried out in 125 cities with the help of the National Disaster Relief Force and various other organisations supporting it on the ground. Aid isn’t limited to displaced migrant workers but is also aimed at the transgender community, leprosy patients, residents in retirement homes and orphanages. Khanna wrote how he aimed to distribute two million meals in a single day to the transgender community, the differently-abled, sex workers and AIDS/HIV patients.
"मैं अकेला ही चला था…और कारवां बनता गया" I started alone..and the tribe kept growing#FeedIndia was a humble thought to get food to Old-Age Homes,Orphanages & Leprosy Centers. 1st person to join was @ayushg89 from @IndiaGateFoods Salute their generosity towards feeding India.🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/qz6MHVxRVP
He even tweeted that he had a “big surprise” for the 11-year-old boy who cycled for nine days pulling along a cart to transport his parents (his mother is blind and father had a fractured leg) from Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi to their village in Bihar’s Araria – a distance of around 600 kilometres – during the coronavirus lockdown.
My GrandMa used to tell us about the legend of Shravan Kumar and his love-respect for parents. But for the last 2 months, as we served so many abandoned parents homes, it broke my heart everyday. And then 11-year old Tabaarak's spirit restored my faith. pic.twitter.com/XFaEmbejIx
Finally, when Indian railways started operating Shramik (worker) trains to transport migrants back to their villages – following a Supreme Court ruling ordering the government to ensure their safety and well-being –, even then death didn’t leave the labourers alone. About 80 people passed away in these trains, heat, exhaustion and thirst being the primary causes according to a zonal railway officer. Seeing their plight, Khanna started an initiative to feed passengers too.
A wizard of the culinary kingdom, Khanna says nothing can equal the feeling of feeding the needy during this time of unprecedented crisis. It’s “an experience beyond all achievements”. Here’s wishing him all the best for his compassionate endeavours and hoping that Indian migrants can not only survive but emerge from this pandemic with dignity and respect.
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