Roti Bank Foundation: Fighting Hungerby Kulsum Mustafa August 12 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 48 secs
Kulsum Mustafa writes on D Sivanandan’s relentless efforts towards ending hunger and also has a chat with him about his work.
A decade after retirement, Maharashtra DGP, D Sivanandan, is on a dedicated mission - that of satiating hunger pangs of the needy and poor. He has set up Maharashtra’s first Roti Bank in 2018. Totally dedicated to the cause, this cop has been working relentlessly ever since and is available 24x7. The Foundation serves eleven thousand hot meals daily in Mumbai.
This ‘food-rescue’ operation started off initially as a drive to collect excess food from hotels, events and housing societies. The food was lifted in special GPS fitted vans and was distributed among the hungry in slum areas within 6o to 90 minutes from collection. But during the pandemic and lockdown, the organization revamped its strategy. Sivananda set up four kitchens in Mumbai where fresh food was prepared and then distributed. The pandemic instead of coming in the way of his charitable initiative, instead of deterring him or his team, helped in up-scaling the noble task. In fact, it helped the mission to actually reach its potential and purpose during the pandemic when everything was at a standstill.
From a collector of excess food to opening a kitchen to provide over 11000 free meals everyday just in Mumbai is an interesting journey and one which must be told so that it is replicated by others. This cop is determined to bridge the gap between hunger and excess food and there is no stopping for him. His zeal, passion, and concern for the poor and hungry are matchless. He ensures that he is available for any emergencies at all times of the day and night.
What made you launch this initiative?
India presents mind-boggling hunger statistics. The country ranks 100th out of 119 countries on the global hunger scale. The paradox is that while 20 Crore Indians, the majority from Mumbai, go to bed hungry daily, in the same country nearly 1.8 lakh tons of food is wasted everyday. With a little effort I am confident this excess food can be tapped and rescued. By setting up Roti Banks we can reduce the percentage of hungry and helpless Indians. We can also help fight malnutrition - my concern for the hungry stems from my profession.
As a policeman, I have observed that petty crimes generally start due to an empty tummy. I decided while I was in service that after I hung up my boots, I will work on the initiative that strikes down hunger. In 2018, I took the plunge with just a few supporters. In the beginning, we used to collect rotis (bread), and add sabzi (vegetable) from our pocket. We also collected leftover, fresh food from different food centers, parties, events and wedding venues in our special vans to have them distributed among the hungry in slums, footpaths and shanties. This was my little initiative bridging the gap between hunger and excess food. As part of the first initiative, two GPRS-equipped vans make rounds of streets near hospitals and slums to provide food to needy people.
How do you differentiate between the needy and those who are looking for a free meal?
We do not judge people or gauge their hunger before providing food. Anyone who comes for a meal gets it. It is for him to decide whether he should take it or not.
How did the pandemic affect your work?
The pandemic only added to my resolve to ensure that our food mission does not stop. I strongly felt that there can be no bigger testing time for humans and that there would never be more need to feed the poor than during the lockdown. While the number of mouths to feed increased, the donors were missing as all eateries were shut during and housing societies were following COVID-19 protocols and discouraging interaction with outsiders. The situation was bad and it was clear that if we were to continue we would have to alter our work mode. I redesigned my work. With the help of volunteers, we set up four temporary kitchens and started cooking our own food. Where there is a will there is always a way.
How did you manage to distribute this cooked food during lockdown?
My initial concern was the safety and health of my staff and volunteers. I first took care of this by asking them to follow all safety and hygiene rules. I also gave them safety gear and doubled the salaries of the paid staff. For distribution, I used my experience from my service days in the police. I contacted the chowkis in charge and they agreed to help and ensure a human chain. Our vans dropped the food packets at the police stations - the men in khaki did the rest. Through a public address system, they ensured that communication was established and food was distributed in an organized and hygienic way.
Are these kitchens continuing now?
Yes, we have retained one. Here we cook meals for eleven thousand people. My kitchen is now equipped with the latest gadgets and the main machine is the roti-making machine.
How do you manage funds?
Through my experience, I can say with confidence that money for a charitable purpose is never an issue in our country. People are very generous and always come forward to donate for a good cause. The only thing is that the credentials of the person collecting these funds must be established and the donor must be able to trust him completely with his hard-earned money. Fortunately, I have the reputation for being honest and from day one I have ensured transparency - all donations are duly acknowledged and listed on our website. As the Foundation is registered, the donors also get rebates in income tax. There is an open invitation to donors to check our work, food quality at any time.
Who has been your biggest donor till date?
Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla’s Mir Foundation. They donated 60 lakh rupees during the pandemic.
What is your take on the expansion of these food banks?
While it is my dream that the city and country get flooded with Roti banks and that nobody in India goes to bed hungry, I am a little skeptical about setting up banks by unknown people. Food handling requires the greatest of hygiene and care. Contamination can cause serious health complications, which can lead to social and legal issues. That is why I have gone very slowly on this and I like to first thoroughly check the credentials of the person who will be running the branch.
I have fallen back on my old colleagues whom I know can handle a food bank. In the last three years, we have opened branches in five places across India – at Mira-Bhayandhar, Thane, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Nagpur.