The Aahar kitchen in Shillong provides free food to at least 300 people daily. It was launched in 2018 by the Ardhendu Charitable Trust, of which PDG Manas Chaudhuri, RID 3240, is the managing trustee. The trust was formed to perpetuate the memory of his brother Ardhendu who died in a helicopter crash. “He was a large-hearted MLA, popular among the people in Meghalaya. It was only right to launch a programme to feed the hungry on his death anniversary (Sept 22),” says Chaudhuri, adding that the motto of his trust is Service above self, in line with that of Rotary. A former Editor of Shillong Times, he has been honoured with a Padma Shri Award by the then President Abdul Kalam, for his service to journalism. He has also served the state cabinet as a minister.
I am proud to say that I am not a career politician, I am a Rotarian.
— PDG Manas Chaudhuri, founder
Ardhendu Charitable Trust
The food, strictly vegetarian, is prepared by a team comprising a cook and three helpers at the trust’s kitchen and taken in a van to a place called Jhalupara at 12 noon, where people are waiting patiently in a queue on the sidewalk. The table is set with the necessary protocol — dustbins, a handwash station and soaps — in place. “We ensure that our ‘guests’ wash their hands before eating because many of them are so hungry that the sight of food attracts them straight to it, throwing hygiene to the winds,” he smiles. Food is served on stainless steel plates and “a second or third helping is never denied. Many of them bring containers and pack their dinner too.” He says an 80-year-old woman who eats very little, takes some for her physically-challenged neighbour every day.
A team of volunteers help in the whole exercise that lasts for an hour or so. Initially a token amount of ₹5 was charged for the meal. “The idea was to avoid giving them a complex for having a free lunch. Moreover, every morsel must be valued.” But with the ongoing pandemic and the poor taking a big hit, food is being distributed free since April.
During the lockdown, the Aahar initiative gained significance as roadside eateries and restaurants were closed. Even the affordable came to eat this lunch. However, the programme had to be halted for a few days when the Covid situation was at its peak. “When we resumed work I came across an old man, a regular at our stall. He took out half a loaf of bread from his bag and said, ‘I was surviving on this for five days. I would have a bite and down it with some water whenever I was hungry.’ Many people have become dependent on Aahar for their daily sustenance and, when the lockdown was announced, it came as a double whammy for them,” says Chaudhuri.
The team, at the request of the local police, has added one more location at Paltan Bazaar, for distributing food. The volunteers follow the Covid protection protocol, including masks, sanitisers and maintaining physical distance. Before serving, the entire area and the tables are sanitised with bleaching powder and disinfectant.
The menu generally comprises rice, dal, roti, chutney, subzi, and lots of green chillies and salt, a combo which is an all-time favourite, says Chaudhuri, adding that this spread would easily cost ₹100 in a restaurant. Many local citizens sponsor the day’s meal, offer sweets, pastries, fruits etc, either to celebrate a happy occasion or remember the loved ones they have lost, or just for the pleasure of providing food to the less privileged. “Either way, it is truly fulfilling for all concerned.” More recently, IPDG Dr Debashish Das sponsored a day’s meal to share his satisfaction in having completed a rewarding stint as the district governor.
Chaudhuri says that they do not discriminate between the poor and those who can afford a meal. The food is so tasty and hygienic that even the well-to-do citizens eat here. He recalls an occasion when a busload of tourists from Lucknow descended at the venue. “They did not look like destitute. I thought they wanted to see what was going on but they said they wanted to eat. We were curious as to why they wanted to eat this food which is meant for the poor. They said, ‘We told the driver we want to have pure vegetarian food, he brought us here.’ They ate the food, blessed us and left.”
The cost of preparing food for a day works out to ₹15,000. Other trusts and philanthropists contribute sizeable funds to the trust. In addition, the Meghalaya government is allotting 10 quintals of rice every month from its public distribution system, and groceries are bought at wholesale rates. Chaudhuri’s home club, RC Shillong, also pitches in with its contribution. Recently the club, along with the trust, distributed soaps, sanitisers and masks to the public, and during winter they provide them with blankets and woollen clothes.
The trust, formed in 2005, addresses the perennial water shortage in the town by supplying water to households at a subsidised rate. Since 2007, a subsidised bus service is being provided to schoolchildren. This is a big boon for the parents who are unable to ferry their children to school and back for various reasons, says Chaudhuri. The trust also provides financial and material aid to the marginalised and scholarships to deserving students.
Two months after his brother’s death, Chaudhuri served two terms as an MLA “on request from various quarters to fill in his big shoes,” and received an appreciation letter from the then PM Manmohan Singh for promptly accounting for every penny from the legislator’s fund. “I am proud to say that I am not a career politician, I am a Rotarian,” he beams.
He joined Rotary in 1980 and was the district trainer last year. He has been elected as the district’s representative to the CoL next year.