Mayor Shakya berates volunteers for distributing ‘unhygienic meals’Volunteers say mayor’s remark is baseless; rights activists call city’s ban on food distribution against people’s right to life.
Following widespread criticism from the public and backlash on social media over Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s decision to bar volunteers from distributing free meals at Khula Manch, Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya on Wednesday organised a press conference to clarify his stand on the issue.
During the conference at the City Hall, Shakya, who has been criticised for his failure to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the city, gave a long speech in which he berated the volunteers for serving unhygienic food haphazardly at Khula Manch. “Many are doing social work just to show that they are feeding the poor and asking for donations showing their photos abroad”—a claim the volunteers rubbish.
Shakya, who was also infected with Covid-19 but stayed in isolation at a five-star hotel with his family, said the city has distributed essentials to 150,000 families and fed 250,000 people during the lockdown. But the city doesn't have data on where it fed the people.
Ishwor Man Dangol, spokesperson for the city, said Rs85 million was spent on relief packages in the first three months of nationwide lockdown that started from March 24.
Many working class families that needed to sustain themselves doing manual work said they simply didn’t get relief from the city because they didn’t have citizenship cards.
Kaila Tamang, who was at Khula Manch on Wednesday along with his wife and two kids to get a free meal, said his family survived the lockdown thanks to the free meals.
“I didn't get any relief package from the city because they wanted to see my citizenship card,” said Tamang, 65, a rickshaw driver now out of work.
Shakya said that there was no need to feed people in open spaces as each of the 32 wards of the city were feeding people and providing jobs to those who don’t have work. He added that providing free meals would make the people dependent on others.
Volunteers, who provide the free meals, quashed Shakya’s allegations that they were giving away food to get money from abroad “This is a baseless statement,” said Bablu Gupta, who created a Facebook group (“100 Group”) with other like-minded people and volunteer organisations to provide free meals to the needy. The group has been feeding free meals to 700 people twice a day.
“We don’t have any foreign donors. Seeing our work, people are voluntarily contributing food items. Some donate rice, pulses and vegetables on their birthday, others do that in the name of their deceased family members. We also get rice from shopkeepers as a donation,” said Gupta.
He said after widespread criticism, the city has backtracked on its decision to bar the distribution of free meals at Khula Manch. “It has given us permission to distribute free meals until Tihar. We are now looking for a party palace to feed the needy,” said Gupta.
Advocate Om Prakash Aryal said the city’s decision to bar volunteers from distributing free meals went against the people’s “right to life”.
“Because it’s not a normal situation, the state should have facilitated free food for those facing hunger due to the Covid-9 pandemic. If a group provides food voluntarily, it should facilitate them, not stop them,” said Aryal.
In addition to this, the state should also have looked after the dignity of those people, he said. “Nobody likes to beg for food in an open space, they are doing so out of desperation,” said Aryal.
But Shakya said that as the city has been declared “beggar-free”, “Those who are hungry should contact their ward representatives.”
“We also have Manav Sewa Ashram for the homeless,” said Shakya.
Although the city rescued over 300 homeless persons from the street in December, many have already returned to the streets complaining of an unconducive environment in the shelters.
Political analyst Rajendra Maharjan said the mayor's decision to order volunteers to stop distributing free food is aimed at covering his own weaknesses. “The mayor himself did nothing to prevent the spread of the disease, neither did he set up isolation wards,” said Maharjan.
Shakya, who was elected the city’s mayor in 2017, has been at the centre of numerous controversies. Two months ago, he was criticised for going incommunicado when the city grappled with the pandemic. Last year, he sent police to arrest artists who painted flowers at the open theater as a part of the Occupy Tundikhel campaign.
He was also criticised for allowing Jaleshwor Swachhanda Bkoi Builders, the company assigned to build the Kathmandu View tower, to construct 52 illegal structures at Khula Manch.