a ripped up biscuit wrapper taped to an orange field
Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

India’s Comfort Food Tells the Story of Its Pandemic

The country’s coronavirus response has affected Indians very differently. One thing unites them, though: a biscuit.

The evening, Surender Malik recalls, was a blur. Exhausted, he had just sat down to watch television as his wife prepared dinner when Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on-screen. It was March 24, and the coronavirus outbreak had been declared a pandemic about two weeks prior. Thus far India appeared not to have been badly affected, at least if official figures were anything to go by. The authorities were implementing ever-stricter rules, and parts of New Delhi were beginning to thin out, but Malik was still able to go to work at the biscuit factory he ran just outside the capital.

That would soon change: Modi announced what would be the world’s toughest lockdown, barring all but essential stores and services nationwide for three weeks, with four hours’ notice. Moments after the address ended, both of Malik’s cell phones began vibrating—workers heading in for the night shift, and their supervisor, were panicking. “Most had never heard of a lockdown before,” he told me.

Malik slipped on his office shoes and sped back to work, a short drive away. Once there, he checked his inventory and, assured that he had enough supplies for a week’s worth of output, began leading teams of workers in making as many biscuits as they could before the lockdown came into force. The brand he produces, Parle-G, is ubiquitous across India, and the process is tightly scripted: wheat flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, palm oil, preservatives, and flavoring are all added at specific points over a 20-minute period. The biscuits are baked for precisely eight minutes at up to 536 degrees Fahrenheit. Malik and his colleagues frantically churned out batch after batch. By midnight, when he had to shut down the gas valves powering the ovens, turn down the air pressure, and seal bags of raw materials, he and his colleagues had made 25 tons of biscuits.

By then, however, the restrictions were in force. It was unclear what Modi had meant by essential services, so many businesses opted not to open. As a result, no trucks could transport any of the biscuits, nor bring in additional supplies; retailers, distributors, and warehouses couldn’t store them; and neither Malik nor any of his team were supposed to be on the premises. So Malik appointed a maintenance worker, an electrician, and a janitor to stay at the factory while the other workers on-site filed out. For only the second time in the 90-year history of Parle Products, its facilities were closing—the only other such instance was during the partition of India and Pakistan.

Like many other Indians, Malik had less than four hours to make transformative decisions, ones that would have ramifications for himself, his family, his colleagues, and his employer, all without a road map. Yet his were more impactful than most: The product he makes is among the most universally consumed in India.

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Across the country’s varied culinary landscape—where what one eats can signal class, caste, religion, ethnicity, and income—Parle-G biscuits are neutral. Wealthier Indians dip them in milky tea, poorer ones in water. A pack sells for as little as 2 Indian rupees, or about 3 cents, and can be found at five-star hotels as well as in the fields of rural India. They are a symbol, as the sociologist Amita Baviskar puts it, of consumer citizenship, of an aspirational equality.

Beyond the product itself, the people who make it illustrate the complexity and interdependent nature of the Indian economy, reliant at once on full-time workers and day laborers, not simply across the supply chain but often at the same company, even on the same factory floor. The Parle-G biscuit is, in many ways, bound up in multiple Indias—that of the formal and informal economy; that of big retail chains with their advanced supply chains and online stores, and mom-and-pop stores that have neighborhood credit systems; that of the rich, and the poor.

Over time, as the coronavirus outbreak has worsened in India, the government has variously extended and eased its lockdown, but these past two months have not been experienced uniformly. The rich and middle class retreated into their gated communities with stocked pantries while a migrant exodus unfolded, with casual laborers trekking, often by foot, for days at a time back to their home villages. Here again, we see the Parle-G biscuit’s universality: In richer neighborhoods of Mumbai, Delhi, and elsewhere, stores were sold out of it, whereas for many working-class citizens, a glucose biscuit was an easily digestible antidote to hunger as they headed home. Reports and social-media videos have narrated stories nationwide of desperate workers fighting off hunger by unwrapping Parle-G’s iconic wax-paper packaging for some sustenance. Near Delhi, a group of workers undertaking the several-hundred-mile journey home on bicycles spoke of surviving on Parle-G biscuits and water. In Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, doctors threw packets of Parle-G at those being held at a university-turned-quarantine facility.

Malik told me about how he had seen impoverished workers at construction sites and porters at railway stations eat them. “We have to ensure the supply does not stop,” he said. “It is a social responsibility.”

Parle-G biscuits are India’s comfort food. In 1929, Mohanlal Dayal Chauhan, an Indian businessman, established Parle Products, naming it after the Mumbai suburb, Vile Parle, where it was founded. For Chauhan, the company was his contribution to a broader nationalist push toward self-reliance and resistance to British colonial imports. He produced, priced, and packaged the biscuits for both India’s poor and its wealthy, and they became an instant success. Parle-G biscuits were India’s first truly popular branded food item. Today, the company says they are the world’s best-selling biscuit by volume, with more than a billion packets made every month.

Parle G Archival Imagery

As Parle Products has grown, and India has changed, the Parle-G biscuit itself has remained, in essence, unchanged, available at the smallest corner shop and the swankiest supermarket. In foreign lands, a Parle-G dunked in tea offers a taste of the familiar. From my days as a university student in London to my travels backpacking across Asia and West Africa, Parle-G biscuits—targeted at the Indian diaspora—transformed from a childhood passion to a memory of home.

The lockdown affected all 135 Parle-G factories across India. With more than 10,000 employees on the rolls and about 50,000 more working indirectly for the company, according to Parle Products—as well as many informal workers—an intricate system unraveled. The government had allowed the production and sale of essential commodities but did not clearly spell out what was “essential,” with implementation and interpretation varying across the country.

Parle executives met with federal and state government officials, who eventually clarified that biscuits were considered essential—but that would not be enough. Biscuit production is a voluminous business that begins with raw material and ends at a retail sales point. After the company was allowed to restart production, permits were required for ferrying workers to and from the factories, for the 8,000 distributors who supply the biscuits to more than 5 million retail stores, and for an army of salespeople and workers at distribution centers across the country (the process has been so laborious that many are still awaiting permits).

Parle G Archival Imagery

Malik returned to the factory on March 30, less than a week after Modi’s announcement. He and his colleagues wore masks, underwent thermal scanning, sanitized their hands, and walked through a tray of bleach solution into the factory. There was no question that he would lead them in: Malik is close to many of his colleagues, calling the younger ones “my boys.” He has kept in regular touch with those who have set off to faraway homes, fearful for them, as many migrant workers have died en route. The son of the headmaster of a nearby government-funded school, Malik was the first member of his family to enter the corporate world. The year he joined Parle, 1991, was a seminal one for India, with the government dismantling a socialist economy and setting the country on a path of stunning economic liberalization. Over the course of his career, he moved across different factories nationwide, was able to buy a house, and could take his wife on a 25th-wedding-anniversary holiday to Singapore and Malaysia. When others spoke of his journey—from commuting to work on crowded trains, then upgrading to a personal scooter, and, eventually, buying his own car with a parking spot on the factory premises—they recounted a tale of aspiration similar to the one often told about his country.

Still, not all his colleagues joined him; about a tenth of the factory’s workers were migrants, and many had returned to their home villages. Others just didn’t come in, either because a lack of public transport meant they couldn’t make it to work, their local area forbade them from leaving, or they feared the coronavirus. The lower numbers of staff translated to reduced output: Malik and his team were only able to produce 20 tons a day once they returned to work.

Two parallel systems of retail sales exist in India: supermarket chains and neighborhood stores. The confused early period of the lockdown, the panic buying ahead of it, and the reduced attendance at the factory contributed to shortfalls of Parle-G in both outlets. The shelves were empty in the supermarkets first. Then the corner shops, accustomed to convenience or top-up buying, were caught off guard and quickly sold out. About three weeks after Modi’s announcement, biscuits that were once available in all corners of the city were impossible to find in my Mumbai district. I called other shops across the city, and they, too, reported shortages. When they were finally available again, the smaller 2-rupee packets, typically favored in poorer areas, were being rationed in upscale neighborhoods. Supplies still remain irregular, and in containment zones or areas where strict lockdowns remain in place, Parle-G biscuits are still unavailable.

The restrictions affected India’s supply chain at every step along the way. When the first truck carrying Parle-G after the lockdown was put in place reached Navin Shantilal Dhedia, a wealthy distributor in East Mumbai, he clambered on board and started off-loading them himself—his staff couldn’t make it to work. Salesmen like Ankit Dhuriya, the link between distributors like Dhedia and individual stores, declined to report in, as the journey meant navigating coronavirus hotspots. Store owners were forced to pick up stock directly from storage depots. Dhedia’s sales fell by two-thirds. India has 12 million small retail stores, which together employ some 40 million people and generate more than $9 billion in annual revenue. Unable to maintain supplies of Parle-G and other products, many had to temporarily close.

More than half of those employed in this complex chain are informal workers, who get paid after each day’s labor. Eighty percent of India’s workforce works this way, lacking job security, health-care benefits, or any other safety net. The sudden loss of income and the shutdown of public transport forced huge numbers to leave the cities for their distant homes on foot. In one survey of more than 11,000 migrant workers, almost 80 percent reported having less than $2.60 on hand; half had food for less than one day; most had not received food assistance from the government.

A shopkeeper selling Parle-G biscuits and other products near a metro station in New Delhi, India, on November 23, 2019 (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty)

Three days after the lockdown was implemented, Ram Prajapati, a construction worker in Gurgaon, a major commercial center of shimmering office blocks, extravagant malls, and opulent apartment towers near New Delhi, ran out of food. The contractor who hired him and other workers wouldn’t answer his calls. He and his wife had 100 rupees, or a little more than $1, left. They bought flour, tomatoes, and two packets of 2-rupee Parle-G biscuits for their 3- and 7-year-old sons. As crowds of out-of-work people lined up at community kitchens for food handouts, Prajapati was reluctant to join them. “I came to the city to work,” he told me, “not to beg.”

As it became clear that work would not resume for a while, Prajapati decided to walk with his family back to his village, 600 miles away. They set off with a small plastic bag full of essentials, Prajapati carrying his 3-year-old on his shoulders. At one point in the journey, the older boy was exhausted and unable to walk farther, so his mother offered him a Parle-G. The glucose biscuits were easy to carry, offered a quick source of energy, and had a level of standardization, meaning they could be trusted. Three days later, through a combination of walking and hitching rides with essential-goods trucks, the Prajapatis reached home, having survived largely on food from volunteers along the way, as well as Parle-G biscuits.

India’s national food-security law offers 5 kilograms of rice per month to about 800 million people. After the lockdown, the government doubled that. But a quarter of all people eligible, the Prajapatis among them, did not receive any because they lacked the proper documentation. A National Council of Applied Economic Research survey found that 84 percent of respondents in Delhi alone reported loss of income, and nearly 30 percent experienced shortage of food, fuel, and medicines. Nearly two-thirds of the poor families surveyed reported severe loss of income.

As it has for the Prajapatis, for Parle Products, and for much else in the world, the coronavirus outbreak has exposed existing vulnerabilities and inequities in the Indian economy. The country’s reforms 30 years ago changed the way India did business and created opportunities for new entrepreneurs, helping accelerate economic growth along the way. But in the narrative of a rising nation, many of the poorer workers who helped to build the new economy were forgotten, rendered invisible, squeezed into windowless rooms in slums, with limited access to clean drinking water and sanitation. These people are described as belonging to an “informal economy,” and the pandemic has illustrated how tightly wound they are into India’s labor force, businesses, and supply chains.

As many of these migrant workers have set off for their villages, more than 300 people have died of starvation, exhaustion, and suicide. Early on in the lockdown, reports proliferated of police punishing those who sought to go home. After an outcry, the authorities finally arranged for special trains to transport migrant workers home, but these have been beset by reports of poor management and implementation. In one incident, 16 people who were walking back to their villages were sleeping on a railway track when a freight train ran over them and crushed them to death.

More than two months after Modi’s announcement, India’s lockdown is beginning to ease in parts, and companies are seeking to ramp up production, yet many still face shortages of labor. The country and its businesses need informal and migrant workers to return, but there is little incentive for them to, with no change thus far to their pay and benefits.

At Malik’s Bahadurgarh factory, worker attendance hovers at about 80 percent, but the facility recently had to shut down when certain key staff couldn’t make it to work. Elsewhere in India, sites have struggled because they are in containment zones. Mayank Shah, the head of marketing for Parle Products’ biscuits, told me the company “never imagined a scarcity of labor,” and was now looking at increasing automation and offering training for its workers “so that they move away from menial jobs.”

When I spoke to Malik recently, he recounted how years ago, he and his wife would try to coax their children, now in their 20s, to drink milk by bribing them with biscuits; how, more recently, he had seen photos on his phone of migrant laborers eating the biscuits with water; how he had read reports of the biscuits being sold at inflated prices at worker encampments.

The varied experiences made me think of how the Parle-G—India’s ubiquitous biscuit, its comfort food, its egalitarian snack—was not just made for all manner of Indians. It was made by them, too.