Home >Lounge >Features >How Vikas Khanna provided 9 million meals to vulnerable Indians under lockdown

It’s nearly 2 pm in New York, and only now has Vikas Khanna managed to wolf down some breakfast. Sitting millions of miles away, he has spent all morning coordinating delivery of cooked and dry rations to those in need across India. “When India sleeps, I respond to queries and manage logistics," says Khanna, who dons many hats—of a chef, author, filmmaker, reality show judge, and more. But he is really a humanitarian at heart. And for the past two months, he has been distributing food to vulnerable communities in the country.

It all started when he came across images and news of millions of migrant labour and daily wage workers trudging to their hometowns on empty stomachs. He wanted to express solidarity with them, and with countless others in orphanages and old age homes, who might be going hungry during the lockdown in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. So Khanna put out an appeal on social media, requesting for details of people in need of food. And he received a barrage of responses in no time.

So far, he has supported the distribution of sanitary napkins in Diamond Harbour, West Bengal, and created 57 food stations within petrol pumps in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to offer cooked meals to migrant workers on the move. “On Friday, the day before Eid, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Mr. Khanna’s team distributed feast kits for more than 200,000 people in Mumbai, with rice, lentils, flour, fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, spices, sugar, pasta, oil and dried fruit," mentioned a New York Times piece, dated 27 May.

And now Khanna’s initiative is all set to achieve a new milestone—on 3 June, he would have distributed 9 million meals in more than 125 cities with the help of the National Disaster Relief Force and various other collaborators, who are supporting the effort on the ground. “The 9 millionth meal is dedicated to my fellow MasterChef India judges and the production team," he says. Edited excerpts from an interview in which Khanna talks about the challenges involved in carrying out this mammoth exercise:

NDRF teams distributing food kits.
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NDRF teams distributing food kits.

Your social media feed is inundated with requests from people wanting to help. There seems to be a flurry of responses for the event to take place in Delhi-NCR later this week. Could you talk about this particular initiative?

We are going to distribute 2 million meals in a single day. 10,000 bags containing spices, onions, atta, detergent, sugar, oil rice, and more, will be collected within the Ghaziabad cantonment. This effort is for the transgender community, the differently-abled, sex workers, and AIDS patients. We will also be reaching out to abandoned parents’ homes. Even as we talk about it, I am unable to comprehend how people can abandon their parents. But it’s crazy, the magnitude of solidarity being expressed by people from all over the country. Rations are coming in from Coonoor, Kutch, Indore, and more. These bags will be blessed by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a prominent transgender rights activist, after which the NDRF trucks will take the bags to different corners of Delhi NCR and Ghaziabad. This event will take place either on Friday or on Saturday. A few people backed out at the last minute as they didn’t want to be associated with some communities. So I decided to raise my voice louder in response.

You have named the initiative Barkat, after your grandmother’s favourite word, which you have described in your Twitter post as ‘pure intentions resulting in pure magic’. Both your grandmother and mother have left an indelible imprint on your life’s philosophy. How has that supported you in this effort?

When I left India for the US in 2000, I promised to make my grandmother proud. Over time, it was heartening to see so much appreciation for Indian food in the US and that restaurants helmed by Indian chefs could also win Michelin stars. Of course, things changed because of chefs like Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar and Gaggan Anand. I was only a small part of this. And because I am a little crazy, I made a film, The Last Colour [which was part of the eligibility list for the best picture category at the 92nd Academy Awards]. But this initiative has been the most gratifying experience yet.

On 11 April, I was feeling a little disheartened. Trucks containing thousands of kilos of food supplies had disappeared; people were absconding with the rations. I was at my wit’s end when I called my mother, who is in Amritsar. And she said, “You are my fauji beta. I haven’t raised you to give up. You owe it to the people to carry on, and remember that you are not doing anyone any favour." Her words motivated me and I am glad I persisted. It’s so amazing to see such discipline at every step of the food distribution process—with people standing in lines, practicing social distancing norms all the way. Hands are sanitised before the food packets are handed over. And I maintain rigorous documentation of each of the steps as it also creates a chain of transparency.

What, according to you, is the reason for the success of the initiative?

I would say it’s because of the speed of response. In Mumbai, one child came to get food rations without any chappals on. It was a deeply saddening incident. So, the next day, we decided to provide chappals along with the food supplies as well. Today, I have 50,000 slippers to be distributed. Then, the moment we heard that people were undertaking long journeys on the trains without food, we decided to step in. The time gap between the information reaching me and the first set of food distribution efforts at the station was only 3.5 hours. Having said that, it failed terribly as people were crashing over the food. But we learnt from the experience and thereafter provided meals at six railway stations in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It just goes on to show the possibilities if we all come forth to express solidarity.

This must have been a difficult initiative to coordinate, with you based in New York and the distribution taking place in India. What have been the challenges that you have faced in the process?

It has been a heart breaking process. I am very emotional about the subject of hunger. Only a person who is raised around hunger knows its pain. While coordinating this initiative across time zones, my training as a chef taught me to function without any sleep. Right now, my room is filled with print outs for charting out the logistics. But I am not going to stop, jisko jo kehna hai kehta rahe. It is just wrong that people don’t have food, and we should all do something about it.

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