Pandemic Stories: The Job Of Feeding The Masses4 min read

It came as a rude shock. And the nation with 1.3 billion people had to get locked up indoors with essential supplies by the following morning because of the pandemic. Nobody could guess for how long one had to stay concealed. Cities are made up of migrant populations and many live a hand to mouth existence. Many lived in makeshift shelters absolutely unprepared to take on the lockdown. There was a clamour of one-upmanship about providing free food and shelter for every Indian without shelter or money. Everybody had to cooperate in the national interest and it was said that the pandemic would be conquered in 21 days; if everybody joined hands with the authorities.

The pandemic a lot in store. In less than four days things started getting hey-way and the authorities realised the burden of mass feeding and its ill-preparedness in executing such a grand plan of “generosity”. Not a single shelter functioned without chaos. Food on time, water, toilets with running water and space to rest tonight with minimum distancing -all fell short. Thousands of NGOs and philanthropists joined hands with the authorities in providing basic comforts to the homeless. In a very short time, it was realised that the services put in were not yielding anything. The agencies developed a fatigue of pandemic proportions and desperation crept in from all directions.

The media showed how much food was being distributed while the social media shared a grim picture of hunger, thirst and despair amid the pandemic. When there was no clarity about the end of the state provided banquet, migrant populations started fleeing the cities in every unimaginable mode of transport creating an exodus of the century. It must have dawned upon the authorities that it doesn’t work the way they assumed. That is like the realisation a child could have had on embarking on a heroic fete of fostering a clutch of orphan chicks picked up from the garden. Their basic requirements of the chicks are simple and may even look ‘frivolous’ but hard to provide. All they would ask is a few grams of insect grubs or larvae for the meal. But where and how would a human child find it? Is it possible to provide this exclusive diet for the growing chicks at all?  No, not until one has either grown or located colonies of insects that can constantly supply insect meals nonstop.

Here is a sparrow-sized garden bird, commonly known as a white-spotted fantail Flycatcher. I had a chance to sit along with the clutch of three eggs of white-spotted fantail Flycatcher just outside my window while the country was gaping to cope with the urban migrant crisis. Each one of the tiny chicks was born naked and blind but with an unimaginable appetite. The parents never had to coax their offspring to eat like in a middle-class family. Their insatiable appetite was intact till they developed and fledged out of their mothers care.

It all happened in a matter of three weeks in which time I saw the pale blue eggs transform into fluffy bridling’s fledge to a nearby branch and twirl its fan-shaped tail like their mother. Starting as a small blob of flesh, weighing only two or three grams they kept on steadily growing. Birds are known to consume about nearly a third of their body weight every single day. That would require about one or two thousand insect egg, grub or larvae to make that up. How on earth will the mother find that many insects for each one of the three chicks on a daily basis? I could count the parents making about six hundred sorties to the nest between sunrise and sunset; most of the time with a mouthful of insects. I couldn’t imagine there were that many insects in the neighbourhood. In a well-balanced, chemical-free garden there must be zillions of insects thriving and therefore there live a few tens of birds feeding their hungry brood into healthy offspring. Even if one knew the whereabouts of the insects meticulously handpicking them would cost an arm to fetch. A day’s manual labour would simply suffice the accomplishment of the task. It is only the bird which is gifted with the agility and sharpness to sense, locate and pick the insects one by one without damaging the habitat upon which the insects grow. Things in nature function so effortlessly and in a sustainable manner and things go out of sync only when we try to take control of it.

I felt humiliated with embarrassment for not knowing such a basic principle in nature. There was no way any human foster parent could procure this morsel of bird food. Nature provides 400 to 500 million metric tonnes of beetles, flies, ants, moths, aphids, grasshoppers, crickets and other arthropods per year for the Birds around the world.  We just need to allow them to feed for themselves.  Probably this is what our authorities should have known while embarking on their herculean task of fostering the millions of migrant labourers. After all, they left their deprived home towns to find their morsel for survival.  We just need to keep their habitats functional.