Cut off from the bustle and sparsely populated, Veteran Lines is usually deliciously somnolent. Now, as the COVID-19 crisis drags painfully on, a ‘kitchen’ in the locality has quickened its pulse, in a nice way though.

A brainstorming of sorts by a handful of Anglo-Indians, some domiciled in Chennai and the others beyond the India waters — to be specific, in Dubai — has led to this situation.

Maria Daniels, hailing from the Pallavaram Anglo-Indian community and who has shifted base to Dubai on account of work, explains, “When my sister Andrea who lives in Chennai shared a photo that vividly described the plight of migrant labourers in India, I thought that these people’s burden should be eased in some manner. I discussed it with those I was certain this issue would resonate with, and Melville Doyle and his food-outlet in Veteran Lines came up, and slowly the picture of a relief project emerged.”

The idea that sprung up was a kit for migrant workers, packed tight with essential items. Besides, food would be provided to anyone struggling to find it.

“As Melville has a service-oriented mindset and was already engaged in helping people hit by the crisis, we wanted him to helm this initiative, being its hands and feet,” explains Maria.

Melville lives in Malliga Nagar in Pallavaram, and has been running a food outlet in Veteran Lines, and during the lockdown, he decided to throw it open for some charity feeding.

Maria’s sister mentioned above is Andrea Jacob, well-known dance choreographer and creative movement therapist.

Andrea says, “There has been some support coming from Australia and Canada as well. The support from across the seas is essentially in terms of funds.”

“While the idea for the initiative would have come from a few of us Anglo-Indian friends, living in Dubai and hailing from the Pallavaram and St. Thomas Mount Anglo-Indian communities, the credit for keeping it afloat goes to the Indian diaspora, drawn from various communities and parts of India. They contribute to it, but have magnanimously asked their names to be kept under wraps,” says Maria.

Melville details the main part of the initiative, which is focussed on a section of Grand Southern Trunk Road. “Migrant workers come from places beyond Tambaram, all the way from Chengelpet, where they were once working at units and sites, and they trudge down Grand Southern Trunk road to reach Central Station for the train that would take them home. From the time special trains started being operated, perambulatory groups of migrant workers on GST Road have become a regular sight. A group of 20 is common. Most of the time, it would be young migrant workers who live away from their families. Sometimes, there would be migrant workers with their families in tow. They would be on their way with nothing to ease their road trip; hence, we decided on providing them with the kit bag packed with essentials,” explains Melville.

He trots out the contents of a kit bag: “a food packet, a comb of bananas, a biscuit packet, a packaged glucose drink, ORS powder packet, a bottle of water, a nasal decongestant ointment, a mask, a detergent soap, and a bathing soap. All these items are bought in bulk from wholesalers.”

He continues, “On an average, every day, we distribute 80 kit bags. Some days, we run out of kits, and so give whatever is with us in excess — biscuit packets and anything else that we carry with us.”

“There are also people, most of them from here, who make contributions in kind. As many migrant labourers don’t seem to be wearing footwear; and where some do, the possibility of the footwear wearing out by the time they reach the station is high, so our family here has decided to bear a part of the cost that goes toward buying footwear for them,” says Andrea.

The second half of the initiative is providing needy people in and around Pallavaram with breakfast and lunch, which Melville says may likely be “reduced soon to just lunch as a parallel relief work now demands greater attention and more time”.

Maria points out that the Indian diaspora in Dubai has been engaging in many relief activities for the benefit of needy Indians in Dubai, and therefore, this relief work is just an organic extension of its commitment to service.

The field workers

Melville who does the ‘groundwork’, as he puts it, and the cooking, makes it clear he is just part of a team of four that executes the work on the ground.

“One of my close friends, Steven Ambrose and one of my classmates, Koteshwar Rao, who is differently-abled; and Anita Clifford who takes care of the transport by giving her car for the purpose, and helps us have the kits packed,” Melville gratefully trots out the names of those who make it possible.

Melville reveals that with the passage of time, newer possibilities of serving the needy become evident, and as a result of that, plans have to be chopped and trimmed from time to time.

He says that besides the migrant workers walking down GST Road towards Central Station, there are those who are either cycling or walking to Ambattur and Madhavaram to access the Grand Northern Trunk Road that would take them to Andhra Pradesh or beyond, towards Kolkatta.

He says, “So, we drive down to the section of the city which provides access to this highway, and look for such groups. Giving them the kits, we try telling them that the government is making trains available for them. In reply, some of them tell us they have bought brand-new bicycles just for the trip.”