Catholic volunteers distribute food kits with the help of police in a slum area of Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state, on April 4. The state government ended such charity work on April 6 after positive cases of Covid-19 increased. (Photo supplied)
Christian charities in central India's Madhya Pradesh state have been forced to abandon their food distribution among the poor after the state tightened up social distancing norms to contain the spread of coronavirus.
The state government imposed a curfew in capital Bhopal on April 6, stopping all social workers, including church groups, from distributing free food to the poor and daily wage workers.
Thousands of daily wage earners, street dwellers and migrants lost their income to buy food after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown until April 15, shutting down all public activities and transport.
Christian charities helped Bhopal's poor with food. "But now we are forced to stay at our homes as we cannot go out to distribute the food," said Sister Lizy Thomas.
The curfew came after a sudden spike in positive cases in Bhopal, where at least 12 people tested positive for Covid-19 on April 7, taking the city's count to 74, the state's chief medical officer Sudhir Dehariya told media.
"Five are officials of the state health department and seven from the police and their family members," added Dehariya.
Madhya Pradesh has recorded 268 Covid-19 cases and 18 deaths, including one person in Bhopal.
But Sister Thomas said that since the lockdown began on March 25, they have been helping some 2,000 families in the capital that have no means to earn a living. A group of Christians gifted them free food packets containing rice, wheat, pulses and cooking oil, she said.
"We also have been distributing cooked food and other provisions to hungry migrant workers and slum dwellers in Bhopal for the past week. That's also stopped now," Sister Thomas said.
Kamala Mandal, one of the beneficiaries, told UCA News that her family faces starvation.
"We were getting rations from the sister. That's over now. Police do not allow us to step out. So far, I haven't got anything from the government," Mandal said.
Although the government had announced free rations to the poor, it is not reaching the needy, said Alomati Ray, a social worker in Bhopal.
The nun said they have a stock of food items donated by many people. "I keep still getting calls from the hungry, but I am helpless," Sister Thomas said.
Father Maria Stephen, public relations officer of Bhopal Archdiocese, said all nine Catholic dioceses and several religious congregations in Madhya Pradesh have been involved in helping the needy with food but are restricted now.
"Food distribution work is badly hit after the government withdrew the special passes" needed for such work, the priest said.
The archdiocese has moved the district collector and chief minister's office to lift the ban on food distribution. "We are hopeful of a favorable reply," Father Stephen told UCA News.
Bhopal Archdiocese, which had allocated 1 million rupees (US$13,185) to help the poor, has suspended its food distribution program because of the curfew.
'We have been feeding more than 2,500 people, but now we cannot. We are worried about them. How will they survive without food?" Father Stephen asked.
In Indore, the state's commercial capital, a Christian group was asked to end its "Feed A Stomach" campaign that provided food for people living on the streets, said Famin Jacob, a volunteer associated with the campaign.
The state has some 84 million people but at least 146,000 are homeless, according to official records.