Filling in the gaps: how Delhi organisations provided food relief during COVID-19

This episode reflects on the achievements of a relief network set up in Delhi to help communities find food security during the COVID-19 pandemic and the longer term lessons that can be drawn from their success.

Article, 18 October 2023

In IIED’s ‘Make Change Happen’ podcasts, our researchers and guests discuss key global development challenges and explain what we are doing to support positive change. 

This special guest episode, produced by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), looks at the work of a social network in Delhi that delivered food relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Delhi Coordinated Relief Network succeeded in reaching some of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in the city during an unprecedented crisis.

More than 40 organisations combined forces to get food to as many families as possible on a sustained basis. They were worker federations, unions, societies, trusts and neighbourhood associations – on their own they were struggling to procure food and to get food to families when restrictions on moving around were in place. Together, they could share knowledge, map where the food was going and identify any areas that were being missed.

In Delhi at that time there were neighbourhoods marked by particular social vulnerabilities of caste, gender and religion, putting families at risk of being left behind. The network found these people, and people in informal settlements and colonies at the edge of the city.

IIHS’s research on the Delhi Coordinated Relief Network was part of a wider partnership under the FCDO-funded Covid Collective with Dialogue on Shelter, an affiliate of Slum Dwellers International in Zimbabwe. Both organisations documented the impact of COVID-19 and the urban social protection responses that emerged in each region.

This episode of Make Change Happen is hosted by Rashee Mehra of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, with guests Juhi Jain, deputy director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research and Dr Gautam Bhan, the associate dean of the School of Human Development at IIHS.

The conversation kicked off with discussing the bureaucratic challenges of working in a city the size of Delhi but quickly moved on to a key lesson: that as long as the principles of deciding who got what and how much could be given were transparent, and that the distribution plan was shared with all network members, then everyone accepted the process as fair. Not everyone had to receive the same amount of food if it was clear why distribution was done as it was – based on varying levels of vulnerability.

Combined with centralising resource funding, the network created a virtuous circle: you make a network, people trust you with large-scale stocks, the more stocks you have, the less anyone has to compromise on needs.

Gautam Bhan highlighted a further success – creation of more community kitchens, which functioned extremely well despite the challenge of needing daily food supplies. But he also made the point that it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to get these kitchens set up. They should have been part of an existing decentralised social infrastructure, so that the community was set up to respond to the crisis.

That point, built on by Juhi Jain, was a key part of the ensuing conversation – the question of how a sustained, decentralised social protection system could be set up so that it provided a safety net for the everyday crises that so many people face in cities in India; how the state could learn lessons from the pandemic to prepare for the future. But also importantly, how with trust and solidarity, communities too, can learn lessons, and use them to nurture stronger relationships and networks across neighbourhoods.


Head and shoulders photo of Rashee Mehra.

Rashee Mehra (moderator) is part of the School of Human Development at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS). Her research focuses on the issues of inequalities and activism, urban planning, informal work, social protection and gender. At IIHS she works on creating research on social movements to support the work activists and practitioners who engage with marginalised urban geographies.

Head and shoulders photo of Gautam Bhan.

Gautam Bhan is an urbanist whose work focuses on urban poverty, inequality, social protection and housing. He is currently associate dean at the School of Human Development, as well as senior lead of academics and research at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru, India.

Headshot of Juhi Jain

Juhi Jain is the deputy director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), where she looks after work on gender and water, sanitation and hygiene. She provides technical guidance and operational support for effective programme implementation, partnership building, training, capacity and knowledge management and led CFAR’s COVID-19 response.

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