Breathe India, breathe, says RC Queen’s Necklace

A little boy picks up a food packet from the Community Fridge installed by RC Queen’s Necklace.
A little boy picks up a food packet from the Community Fridge installed by RC Queen’s Necklace.

These are times when millions of Indians have been hit by loss of jobs with the worst affected being daily wage earners, migrant labourers and the homeless. To mitigate the hunger pangs of those who cannot afford their meals, Rotary Club of Queen’s Necklace in Mumbai, RID 3141, has launched a project titled Community Fridges.

This 35-year-old club with 181 members has installed several community fridges across Mumbai in areas such as Andheri, Bandra, Parel, etc which are stocked by the local people with fresh food, leftovers, fruits and vegetables. “Those in need of food can walk up to a fridge and take whatever they require. There are no eyes watching them and no one judging their helplessness. Preserving dignity of those in need is the philosophy of this initiative and it helps remove the stigma of begging,” says Sneha Pathak, club president.

Preserving dignity of those in need is the philosophy of this initiative and it helps remove the stigma of begging.

There are two crucial factors which are making this project work; so far five fridges, each costing about ₹45,000, have been placed. “The first factor is the location of the fridge, because they have to be close to both the contributors and the receivers. The second, of course, is that somebody, preferably an organisation on whose premises the fridge is kept, has to take responsibility for it. Temples, mosques, churches, schools and even restaurants have proved to be successful locations, she says. Two members — Asif Porbanderwalla and PP Sanjiv Mehta — are in charge of this project to ensure that the fridges are kept well stocked with food, there is no stale food and the fridges remain clean.

Sneha says that the ultimate idea is to set up 50 such community fridges across Mumbai, but “we have to ensure that the local resident groups take the onus of ensuring these fridges are always stocked with food”. On the kind of food available in the fridge Porbanderwalla says, “It is largely bananas, packets of dal-chawal, or khichdi, some people put loaves of bread, while others might buy some samosas or vada-pao and place those packets there. A very thoughtful gesture is putting water bottles in these fridges.”

It is interesting to know that those who pick up the food are not only the daily wagers or homeless, but also local policemen patrolling the street, or the safai karmacharis. “We’ve even had students picking up some food from our fridges. One of them is kept at a convent school and the nuns have taken the responsibility of ensuring that the fridge is well stocked and is kept clean too,” says past president Sanjiv Mehta.

This & facing page: Covid patients get oxygen support with the help of oxygen concentrators rented out by the club.

Raising money for its charitable projects has never been a problem with this club. It may be recalled that during the first lockdown, when Mumbai’s homeless, street dwellers, migrants and daily wagers were struggling for sustenance, RC Queen’s ­Necklace raised a whopping ₹14 crore to supply one crore fresh, cooked meals through April and May 2020 to needy Mumbaikars.

Sneha adds, “we customise every fridge, which has a glass door, by branding it with the Rotary Wheel and if it’s a donation by a member in the memory of a loved one, his/her name is also displayed on it. We want to expand this project to put 50 community fridges but are going slow with their installation, as we want to ensure that first of all the local people take ownership of the project, no stale food remains in the fridge and it is cleaned regularly. During the second wave, as cases were going up, and there was more demand for food, the club itself was stocking at least 150 meals in every fridge, to meet the shortfall on demand.

During times of such huge demand, what prevents a person from walking away with several packets, I ask her. She smiles and says: “We haven’t had a single negative experience like that yet. I was there for the inauguration of a ­couple of fridges and saw people taking only what they need. Yes, occasionally someone may take not one but two meals, for a person at home, which is okay.”

We haven’t had a single negative experience like people walking away with several food packets; they take only what they need.

Another commendable project of the club appropriately titled Breathe India Breathe is to provide oxygen concentrators to those infected by corona and gasping for breath. This was started three months ago, even before the second wave of the pandemic hit Mumbai and other places in India. “A commander who is the recipient of the President’s Gallantry Award for his bravery in the Taj Mahal hotel terrorist attack on 26/11, called seeking an oxygen concentrator (OC). A woman from Bhiwandi called to say she has no money to pay a deposit for an OC, but a family member needs it urgently,” says Sneha.

Those getting discharged from hospitals required to take oxygen at home for 15 days, and because oxygen was not available, even the HNIs who could remain in home isolation and get well with oxygen support, were rushing to hospitals, taking up beds required for the more seriously sick patients, because OCs were not available even at a premium.

Hospitals in Palghar, Mahad and Nashik also reached out for support, showing the seriousness of oxygen shortage.

A Covid patients get oxygen support with the help of oxygen concentrators rented out by the club.

Team Miracle, the service arm of the club swung into action and started this project to give out OCs on loan, free of cost, to needy patients. “We asked no questions about caste, class or creed; our only aim was to help patients stabilise and remain at home and in doing so reduce the demand and pressure on hospital beds. We soon built up a bank of 40 machines, acquired at an average cost of ₹50,000, to ensure that we never had to say no to anyone,” says Sneha.

Admirably, the money required for this project was raised through the club’s members. In this project the oxygen concentrator is loaned free of cost for 10–15 days, and about 35 concentrators are constantly in circulation, and over 200 people have already benefited from this scheme.

Awareness about availability of these OCs was spread through social media “and our message went viral. We also put up posters in hospitals and spread the word to doctors,” she added. With a club member, who has a spare house in Bandra giving the nod, the OCs are kept there and two tele-callers hired by the club, answer calls. A three-member core team — ­comprising Rima Shah, PP Manoj Gursahani and Anne Shefali Mehta — then decides on the genuineness of the request, and tracks the patient. “We ensure that the concentrator is returned in a good condition, so it can be cleaned and made ready for the next patient. So far, we haven’t had a single bad experience,” says Rima Shah.

We put up a Whatsapp message the previous evening at 8 pm, and in three hours we raised ₹34 lakh for 4,000 grocery ration kits from our club members.

Barring two cases where the patient had to be hospitalised due to existing comorbidities, all the people who availed this facility from the club, did well through home isolation, and “hence our intent of reducing pressure on hospital beds was well achieved,” says past president Manoj Gursahani.

Another significant service project of the club is helping patients from interior villages, that are about two hours of driving distance from the district headquarters hospitals. “They were in dire need of advanced life support ambulances. They often found that even after travelling this distance, the admission itself at overburdened hospitals was taking hours,” says the club president. Seven such well-equipped ambulances are being organised for use in the rural areas of Maharashtra at a total cost of ₹1.4 crore. Half of these funds were raised through CSR, the other half came from club members. The ambulances are fitted with oxygen supply and ventilators, along with other monitors and are capable of supporting a critical patient from remote villages till she reaches the nearest hospital. This project is being done in conjunction with the National Health Commission, Maharashtra, which will be maintaining and managing the ambulances.

A volunteer providing a food packet to a needy person.
A volunteer providing a food packet to a needy person.

Next it was found that medicines were required for thousands of people in “rural and government hospitals as well as daily mushrooming Covid centres. We provided the same”. Medicines worth ₹7 lakh were supplied by the club to Covid treatment centres at Nehru Centre and Poddar Hospital, besides government-run hospitals such as St George, KEM and GT Hospital, as well as hospitals in Mahad.

An oxygenated van was donated by the club to be stationed at the ­Quepem Covid care centre, Goa, and it ferried patients within the city of Goa to hospitals and back and provided oxygen in the interim hours before a bed was found.

As May 2021 saw Mumbai reeling under the second and more lethal wave of the Covid pandemic, and the city was locked down, the club decided to supply 3,100 ration kits, each enough to feed a family of four for a month. Raising money has never been a problem for this club, where at least 70 per cent of the members donate money for community welfare projects, and money is often, and speedily, raised on the club’s Whatsapp group. “Each ration kit costs ₹850; we wanted to start the distribution on June 3, and put up a Whatsapp message the previous evening at 8 pm, and in three hours we raised ₹34 lakh for 4,000 grocery ration kits from our club members. An outside donor chipped in with 1,000 kits.” So a total of 5,000 grocery kits were handed out, says Sneha.

Proving that it really cares, during the last lockdown, as the supply of food to the community fridges dried up, the club raised money to place 150 cooked meals every day in the five community fridges.

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