Learnings from a month-long lockdown: How to deliver food and essentials to citizens

In the first part of our COVID Learning Series, we look at how different cities have been dealing with the challenge of providing essentials for all during the lockdown.

Distressing stories of the loss of both lives and livelihoods have been reported across the country during the month-long nationwide COVID lockdown. The other side of the story has been the efforts of NGOs, activists and ordinary citizens who had to plan and respond swiftly to help out as best as they could.

Citizen Matters has launched the COVID Learning Series, surveying relief efforts as well as public services like medical care, waste management and transport in different cities to see what has worked where and why. We are collating this emerging knowledge in an effort to support civil society groups and government agencies, who will be able to use this information to plan better.

Providing Essentials

In Part I of the series, we look at how different cities have been dealing with the challenge of providing essentials for all as the lockdown continues.  We encapsulate the learnings in terms of what has worked on the ground.

What are essential goods?

While the government has not released a consolidated list of essential goods, the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 mentions seven goods – drugs, fertilizer (inorganic, organic or mixed), foodstuffs (including edible oilseeds and oils), hank yarn made wholly from cotton, petroleum and petroleum products, raw jute and jute textile, seeds of food-crops and seeds of fruits and vegetables, seeds of cattle fodder and jute seeds and cottonseed.

Large wholesale markets are important nodes for food distribution in cities. But given their size and density, they also pose the risk of large gatherings. In Ahmedabad, wholesale markets were open at first but were later closed down as they drew large crowds. To prevent this, Mumbai, set up wholesale markets in different areas of the city like Chunabhatti, Dahisar, BKC (Bandra Kurla Complex) etc to spread out the load and avoid concentration in existing markets like Dadar.

Delhi, Chandigarh, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon adopted a different approach – the odd-even rule. Shops with odd registration numbers open on odd days and vice versa. Ghaziabad’s markets are also under heavy police surveillance.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that many wholesale markets in Patna haven’t adopted any social distancing norms, leading to large gatherings.

Smaller local vegetable markets also pose the risk of crowding, but not as much as wholesale markets. Local markets in most cities in the survey have remained open, but have been regulated by local governments. Regulations include specific timings for shopping and measures to ensure social distancing.

Cities like Patna, Dehradun, Shimla and Ghaziabad have specific timings for local vegetable markets. Ahmedabad on the other hand, shut them down and instead relied on an authority-approved list of vendors and e-rickshaws, who go to different neighbourhoods to deliver fruits and vegetables. In Mumbai, vegetable vendors have been shifted to nearby open spaces like school playgrounds and local grounds. This has helped ensure distance between vendors and prevented crowding among shoppers.

Neighbourhood kirana stores have stepped in to fill the gap locally, as markets have become less accessible. Stores which are dependent on personal visits by shoppers have adopted social distancing measures – distance markers on the ground and regulated queues. This is true for most cities in the survey. Ghaziabad has preferred to rely on the police to enforce social distancing at kirana stores.

In some cases, home delivery has been advocated. The city government in Ahmedabad is coordinating with local stores and issuing curfew passes to them, enabling home delivery.

Swiggy Delivery Boy Delivering Food during the Lockdown in NOIDA
Swiggy Delivery Agent picking up an order to deliver during the Lockdown in NOIDA PIC: Siddhant Kalra

Online stores are also providing home delivery to those who can access them. In some cases, they are actively working with local governments. In Ahmedabad for example, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has partnered with online delivery services and designated different zones to different companies. But reports from Patna suggest a failure of efforts to make home delivery possible with the helpline number provided by the district administration not functional.

One of the biggest challenges of the lockdown has been delivery of relief measures to economically weaker sections (EWS). According to the survey, economically weaker sections have been accessing essentials primarily through kirana stories, PDS shops and relief efforts by local governments, NGOs, citizens and civil society organizations which are ongoing in every city. In Ahmedabad, the AMC is coordinating with NGOs, the collectorate and the police to deliver free ration kits. In Shimla, voluntary organizations like the Sikh Gurudwara Samiti are providing meals, while in Ghaziabad, the police are delivering rations.

Citizens too are taking the initiative. In a residential complex in Gurgaon, residents have come together to collect funds and distribute them to those in need around them.

Migrant Workers in Queue for Food in Paharganj, Delhi
Migrant Workers in Queue for Food in Paharganj, Delhi PIC: Wikimedia Commons

Relief efforts by citizens, voluntary groups and local governments have filled the gaps left by state and central policies and schemes. For instance, the survey suggests that the Public Distribution System (PDS) is operational in most cities. However, recent news reports show that people have been denied ration due to inadequate ID or eligibility. Moreover, large gatherings and long queues at PDS outlets are being reported in many cases.


Here are a few key learnings on how to ensure food security for the maximum number of people without violating social distancing norms.

1. Last-mile delivery – When food networks in a city are disrupted, the onus falls on local governments to coordinate with delivery partners of different kinds to fill the gaps. Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has managed to coordinate with partners at different levels – online platforms, vegetable vendors and e-rickshaw shops – to ensure doorstep delivery in many neighbourhoods. In Hyderabad, the state government has arranged ‘Rythu Bazaars’, which are on-call facilities which deliver essentials to homes.

The AMC also coordinated with the collectorate and police to deliver ration kits to economically weaker settlements in the city. Providing services through a spatial approach, rather than a scheme-based one in this way can prevent large queues and ensure better coverage of services.

Mobile Rythu Bazar in Hyderabad
Mobile Rythu Bazar in Hyderabad PIC: KTR Twitter

2. Taking responsibility at the neighbourhood level – A residential association in a Gurgaon neighbourhood gets its orders delivered at the doorstep of their apartment from nearby stores by pooling orders and organizing at the neighbourhood level. The same network is mobilized to raise funds for those in need in and around the area.

3. Supporting the kirana store and cart vendor – Online deliveries and home deliveries via district helplines do enable residents to get essentials at home. However, they are not accessible to all. In a Patna neighbourhood, most people are not relying on the district helpline which is not functional. Instead, they rely on the kirana store and local vegetable shops. In Ghaziabad and Hyderabad, some neighbourhoods are reliant on cart vendors, who are still going on rounds.

Kirana stores have complained of insufficient stock, supply vehicles being stopped at the borders and a lack of resources to enable home delivery, while vegetable cart vendors have found it hard to secure passes and support from local authorities. In areas where tech-savvy interventions cannot penetrate, it is important to support existing neighbourhood level networks, instead of replacing them with authority-approved alternatives, which don’t serve as many people.

4. Universalizing PDS access – One of the major challenges in the delivery of essentials to economically weaker sections has been inaccessibility. In Patna and Mumbai, ground reports suggest that people in economically weaker areas have been finding it most difficult to access essentials.

For instance, residents in Kandivili slums of Mumbai reported being left out of efforts to distribute rations, as well as returning empty-handed from ration stores, despite waiting in long queues.

Recent news reports show that many in need have been turned away from PDS shops because they don’t have ration cards or are ineligible for schemes. Then, there’s the challenge of grinding the grains received from the PDS without a curfew pass for the poor, as reported in Chandigarh.

The PDS is one of the most robust delivery mechanisms at the disposal of central and state governments. But in its current scheme-based form, the government’s relief efforts are leaving major gaps.

5. Coordination between bodies at different levels – Relief work for those in need is being carried out by the coming together of NGOs, citizens, district administration, local government and even neighbourhood-level organizations like the RWA. It is notable that unlike state and central scheme-based relief efforts, city-level relief is based on a universal and spatial approach. 

It is important for these city-level networks to grow and partner with more local organizations, which know the ‘lay of the land’ and can map the gaps left by more formal channels of relief.

6. Including medical supplies in the home deliverynetwork – While much of the effort has been focussed on food security, accounts from cities reveal the need for the provision of other essentials, especially medicines. While medical shops are open, responses from many cities have reported that home delivery of medicines has not been possible yet. Insufficiency of stocks is also a problem.

A resident of Chandigarh was denied permission to visit a chemist by the police, as he only had an image of the prescription. An RJ from Kothkai village, Shimla travelled 10 kilometres to buy emergency medication for her father but was only able to do so after she got in touch with the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) for a curfew pass.

Many local governments have tied up with kirana shops and superstores to provide home-delivery of essentials. The BBMP in Bengaluru has even provided delivery agents to store owners, who otherwise lack the resources to deliver at home. Including medication in the same network of home delivery could address this major challenge of accessing medication during the lockdown.

7. Policing is not the way to go – While the police have helped in the distribution of aid, as well as in ensuring social distancing in cities like Ghaziabad, reports of police brutality have led to erosion of trust. A resident of Patna reported that he was beaten up by the police for going out to buy a notebook for his child.

In Gurgaon, a residents’ organization has created a WhatsApp group, through which they determine the do’s and dont’s of the lockdown. They decided to self-govern their neighbourhood based on government guidelines. Another example of self-governance instead of policing comes from Mizoram, where the state government has partnered with local organizations, civil society and citizens to ensure lockdown and supply of essentials.

8. Physical distancing – Many local governments have already taken steps to prevent large gatherings at shops and markets – in some cases through policing and in others through collaboration with shop owners. But most cities are still reporting crowding at PDS shops. Residents have also expressed the need for longer functional hours at kirana shops.

Citizen-experts, arguing from the perspective of behavioural science, suggest limiting access to shops, but extending operating hours to ensure better physical distancing at kirana stores. The same principle could also be employed to ensure shorter queues and wider coverage at PDS shops.

The COVID Learning Series is an evolving project. It is based on inputs from journalists, experts, activists and lay citizens. We invite suggestions and examples of what is working on the ground that you have observed, or have heard of – we will collate the same and update this report. Please add your inputs in comments below

Sources: This information was collated based on inputs from journalists, experts and lay citizens: Binita Parikh (Ahmedabad), Amit Bhelari (Patna), Anoop Nautiyal (Dehradun), Ashwani Sharma (Shimla), Utkarsha Srivastava (Ghaziabad), Taru Bahl (Gurgaon), Vijaya Pushkarna (Ghaziabad), Kolla Krishna Madhavi (Hyderabad), Hepzi Anthony (Mumbai), Vidush Pandey (Lucknow), Pooja G. Kannurkar (Pune), Sumedha Chaudhury (Ranchi), Raj Machhan (Chandigarh)

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