It had to be in Mumbai… if not in the financial capital of India, where else can you raise ₹5.5 crore in 15 days to respond to the unprecedented COVID-19 calamity which left lakhs of migrant labourers, daily wage workers and other marginalised sections totally helpless when the country locked down on March 24 to check the spread of corona infection. And this was raised by one single Rotary club — RC Mumbai Queen’s Necklace — which rather befitting its name, now has a woman president in Sonal Jhaveri.
As the corona pandemic took India in its vicious grip, and it became evident that lakhs of people in Mumbai will be left vulnerable and hungry, the “Miracles in Action” group of this prestigious club went into a huddle to strategise how the 179-member club could come to the rescue of migrant workers, daily wagers and other homeless residents of the metro.
When people were scared to even let a courier or vegetable vendor enter their homes, we struck partnerships to ensure meals are cooked and delivered.
The club members decided to initiate the project ‘Feed all in need’; past president and project chief Sanjiv Mehta explains that at first and on April 1 itself, the club made a humble beginning by distributing 1,000 food packets. But they soon realised that this would only be a drop in the ocean as the need on the ground was colossal. They quickly ramped up the number from 1,000 daily meals to an astonishing 100,000 meals and then increased it some more — to 1.5 lakh, and finally 1.6 lakh meals a day!
As the initial lockdown period was three weeks, they first planned to supply 150,000 meals a day to several areas in the city, exploring the possibility of partnerships as preparing 1.5 lakh meals a day can’t be done in a single kitchen.
Says Vijay Shah, the club’s Director, PR: “So we started forging partnerships with seven NGOs who have 200 volunteers to reach the cooked meals to different areas of the city populated by migrant workers, daily wagers and other homeless people.”
What came in handy — this club obviously thinks of projects of scale — was an earlier club project where it had funded a ₹5 crore kitchen facility for serving midday meals to Municipal school children. This was inaugurated in Nov 2019, and with schools now closed, it was readily available for making upto one lakh khichdi meals a day.
The club quickly partnered with the two operational kitchens at Mira Road and Mahul of the Annamrita-ISKCON Foundation which has a 14-year operational experience in preparing meals. “We also brought on board and struck partnerships with Reliance Retail which through the Reliance Foundation gave us groceries worth ₹2 crore, TajSATS flight kitchen, Popular, Blue Sea, Thackers and FoodLink Kitchens to get further capacity to cook fresh, hot, nutritious meals,”, says Shah.
While the preparation of meals was managed through these partnerships, the next question was the logistics involved in reaching the freshly cooked food to the beneficiaries. “When people are scared to even let a courier or vegetable vendor enter their homes, who will actually deliver the meals, all the donations notwithstanding, was the next question,” says Paulomi Dhawan, Strategic Advisor to the club. Though not a Rotarian, her husband is a member, she is passionately involved in the community welfare work the club does.
In Mumbai, Chhoti si Asha and Nobody Ever Sleeps Hungry are two calamity meal and services provider specialists. They have mobilised over 100 volunteer donors who have again and again served in calamities across the country. Additional support was garnered from other NGOs like YMCA, Roti Ghar, Mumbai Responds etc, adds Club President Sonal.
Reliance Retail, through the Reliance Foundation gave us groceries worth ₹2 crore, TajSATS flight kitchen, Popular, Blue Sea, Thackers and FoodLink Kitchens gave further capacity to cook fresh, hot meals.
So with RC Mumbai Queen’s Necklace as the principal coordinator and supporter, “the pyramid grew to over 200 grassroots volunteers, who cover multiple areas, ranging from arterial roads of Mumbai from Colaba to Palghar, to its bylanes. And we’ve got total support from the Mayor, MLAs, Corporators, the police, etc. The list keeps growing,” says Mehta, the project head.
Sonal adds they had supplied 1.6 lakh meals a day for 40 days, and had crossed the 6 million total. “We have decided to keep going with 125,000 meals and foodpackets a day till the third week of May.”
But the dilemma, muses Mehta, is that “even if the lockdown is lifted in May, there is no magic wand by waving which these labourers will get work the next day. So we are preparing foodgrains kits containing rice, flour, pulses, sugar, cooking oil, and spices, which we plan to distribute to about 30,000 needy people who will have to prepare their own meals.”
They have already identified about 15,000 such persons. But raising further funds is getting tougher and tougher.
As the Rotarians point out, they were able to raise the hefty amount of nearly ₹6 crore by dipping into their own savings, and persuading family, friends and their business contacts to donate, and Reliance Foundation to give them groceries worth ₹2 crore. By the first week of May, the club had mobilised a total of ₹11 crore. But resources are not infinite; the club members’ own businesses are shut and the sympathy and support pouring out from civil society might take a dip.
“But this project is so rewarding and has given us so much satisfaction that we will continue to do the best we can,” adds Sonal.