Twelve years ago, in 2007, Raj Miniyar, who was elected President of the Rotary Club of Solapur, RI District 3132, one of the older and larger clubs in the State of Maharashtra and located in a city famous for its handloom and powerloom products as well as the beedi industry, thought of a small, but novel, project. Inspired by his guru, who ran a similar project for his students in religious studies, the incoming president suggested to his club that it provide a free wholesome meal delivered to the house of 25 elderly beneficiaries every day.
“I wanted to do it for one year, but my club’s Board was so supportive that they said let us do it for 100 people, and for not one, but a minimum of three years,” Miniyar smiles as he relates to me the incredible story of the free meal project the club named Annapurna. On Aug 4, it completed
12 years. And in these 12 years, he points out, “we have not missed delivering the tiffin box (packed with a freshly-cooked, hot and wholesome meal) to any of our 100 beneficiaries on a single day.”
If you do the math, the numbers are mind-boggling — and President of the club B S Mundada sums it up for you — a single club has delivered over 4,380 days (or 12 years) 438,000 tiffins, without missing a single day, spending ₹1.44 crore. And all this money has been raised by RC Solapur, with generous contributions from the community in Solapur and beyond.
Come rain, shine, curfew or hospital
On a lovely cloudy morning I set out to examine the critical components of this project which has been meticulously planned by the club’s committee and efficiently executed by its key members through a level of personal involvement that leaves you stunned.
The 100 beneficiaries, all above 65, and not having any means or family members willing to support them, are served by a dedicated autorickshaw driver Jagdish Hiremath. As he drives me to the first stop — there are nine in all over a 14 km route — where Hiremath will deliver the freshly-
packed meal boxes to a group of beneficiaries, I meet Shoba Dixit, Anant Redekar, Balu Jagtar, Ratnabai and others. They are wearing not only bright smiles and clean clothes, they look both cheerful and healthy. Project Chairman Jayesh Patel reels out interesting facts. For instance, in 2009, when Solapur was under curfew for a few days, the Rotarians got special permission from the city’s Police Commissioner to allow the Rotary Annapurna auto to ply on the streets to deliver the tiffins.
Another Committee member, Sandeep Jhaveri, explains how when they went to the RTO (Regional Transport Officer) to get the required permission to put the title Rotary Annapurna Yojana, on the auto, “it was readily given. When the RTO gave us the receipt and we gave the money, he refused to take it, saying that this would be his personal contribution to our wonderful project!”
Not only that, as the scheme was widely publicised by the local media over the years, the Mayor of Solapur, while buying Diwali gifts for his councillors, slashed that budget into half, reserving the other half for the Annapurna elders. And he does this every Diwali. Even when a beneficiary is admitted to a hospital for an ailment, her dabba doesn’t stop; “we reach it to the hospital till she is there.”
Almost from the beginning, this project has caught the imagination of the Rotarians. Maintaining the highest quality for the food sent to the beneficiaries is a passion with them and they take care of the minutest detail required to assure this. Each day, the auto packed with tiffin boxes, halts at the retail shop for household goods owned and run by another committee member Khushal Dedhiya, which is midway on the 9-point, 14 km route.
Dedhiya picks up one or two tiffin boxes at random, weighs them to check on the quantity, and tastes the food from them to ensure that no short cut has been taken on either count. Each day, the meal, prepared by the female members of a self-help group (SHG), includes chappatis, vegetables, rice and dhal and the menu for each day is different. On festival days, the beneficiaries get a sweet dish. During Navratri or other festivals, when fasting is observed, the elders are given fruits.
A meticulous record has been maintained over 12 long years of the menu, complaints if any and other details. As in any tiffin system, two sets of tiffin boxes are given, and sometimes the tiffin which is returned, comes with a note.
Says Chandrika Chauhan, whose NGO Udyog Vardhini has organised this SHG: “Sometimes the note says why don’t you give us non-veg food at least once a week; or make the food more oily or spicy, etc. We tell them it will be only vegetarian food, and that the doctors, under whose consultation the spice and oil levels and other nutrients are maintained, rule out spicy and oily food for your age group!”
But when a note said more than once that both the dhal and the vegetables were watery, the Rotarians played detective, only to uncover the traditional rivalry between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. As the food is delivered to a point very close to where the beneficiaries live, a woman was picking up the tiffin for her mother-in-law every day. Out of spite, she used to remove part of the dhal and vegetables and add water to fill up the container. “We arranged to deliver the dabba to the older woman’s doorstep and also counselled the young woman that look, because you are not taking care of your mother-in-law we are helping her with this food, and warned her not to do this,” says Dedhiya.
Another poignant incident that Jhaveri relates is about a tiffin which would go missing one day but mysteriously reappear the next. The Rotarians investigated this incident by following the tiffin trail physically and found that when the auto driver went to a particular house to deliver a tiffin, a little girl would appear and take away one from the basket. “We followed her and found she had an old sick grandma who badly needed this food. So we included her in our list.”
But apart from the Rotarians’ dedication and the incredible fact that one club president after another has taken ownership of Annapurna and kept it running so efficiently for 12 years, what is heartwarming is the help from non-Rotarians and random people. The tiffin boxes were readily given by the local steel merchants’ association on appeal from the Rotarians. Khushal Dedhiya distinctly remembers the day a client of his came to the store and while the food was being checked for quality and the Rotarians were talking about the scheme, while settling the bill, gave an additional amount of ₹4,765, which was then the cost for sponsoring one tiffin for a year. “His total purchase was only for ₹110, but he voluntarily paid the additional amount of ₹4,765,” he smiles.
Initially, one meal used to cost ₹13, now the cost has gone up to ₹29, and the annual cost of sponsoring a meal is ₹8,100.
Another time, a person in Mumbai watched a news clipping about this project on Doordarshan and spontaneously made out a cheque for ₹5,000 and simply addressed it to ‘Annapurna project, President, Rotary Club of Solapur, Solapur’ and posted it. “And we got the cheque,” grins Kishor Chandan, who was then president, adding, “the postman came looking for me and asked is this for you, and I said yes!”
Annapurna has so many interesting anecdotes attached to it. Once a businessman gave ₹5,000 as donation for this scheme, and immediately after that he got a huge contract, and was so moved by it that every month for the last 10 years he has been giving a cheque of ₹5,000 for it, even though he has moved out of Solapur now.
A Rotarian, who has left Rotary and now lives in the US, regularly collects money for Annapurna and sends it to the club. Also, after seeing on Facebook the Rotary Annapurna Yojana scheme page, with pictures, strangers ask for the bank details of the Rotary Community Welfare Trust of the club which runs this scheme and do an online transfer. The donors get tax exemption under 80G.
And of course, Rotarians continue to support this scheme which is very close to their heart. The previous day, I see PDG Zubin Amaria handing over a cheque for ₹8,100 to a committee member. All the PDGs from the district have supported this scheme. PDG Rajiv Pradhan recalls that when it was first mooted by Miniyar in 2007 “I was a little sceptical that we would be able to sustain 100 tiffins a day for long, but am delighted to note that it is only gathering more strength with the passage of time. Past RI Presidents Rajendra Saboo and Kalyan Banerjee have visited this project, seen the kitchen where the food is prepared, tasted it and have been very impressed with it.”
Adds Chandan, “Both said this project should be featured in Rotary News, and from that day we are waiting for your visit!”
On how the beneficiaries are selected, Miniyar says that initially the club got professional help from the principal of a college for social work. “The students did a detailed survey based on our criteria — the minimum age should be 65, there should be no one to take care of them, the beneficiaries shouldn’t be beggars but those who had once earned their livelihood but were no longer in a position to earn enough to survive.”
The college gave them 400 names; “we categorised the people; the Rotarians physically visited and interviewed all of them and we chose the most needy 100,” he adds.
Over the years, some 27–28 beneficiaries have passed away and new people have been added from the waiting list with the club, to keep the total number at 100.
I ask the committee members the secret behind keeping this scheme going for 12 long years as many clubs struggle to sustain a project once a club president and other officers change. The Rotarians grin and Chandan says, “In fact every incoming and serving president strives to ensure that he collects more money for Annapurna than is required for the year, so he can leave behind a surplus or a cushion for the next president!”
The Self-help group
Initially the contract was given to a local restaurant run by a public-spirited woman and she agreed to do it at the cost price of ₹13, which included delivery. But after a year she told the Rotarians that it was not feasible to sustain it and so they approached Chandrika. That was 11 years ago; “impulsively I said yes, but then got nervous. It is not easy to prepare 100 meals with the kind of strict quality specifications that the Rotarians demanded,” she says. But the enterprising woman started the experiment straightaway “as I had to give the Rotarians a sample on the third day!” She hired an acharya or food expert, her women watched him like hawks, “how much water and spices he added, the weight of the dish after it was cooked etc and we did it!”
She adds proudly: “Now, after 11 years, this SHG with 15 members prepares 2,000 meals a day, for factory and office workers and others. And they are also making masalas, papads, pickles etc for the export market.”
Adds Patel, “And Chandrika has given Rotary credit for the increase in livelihood of these women; in their pamphlet brought out to celebrate a milestone, they have said that they reached this position thanks
Chandan adds that at regular intervals the elderly beneficiaries are taken for outings; “we hire buses and along with our Anns and Annettes take them out, mainly to pilgrim sites. And you won’t believe it; but at popular destinations such as Pandharpur, where pilgrims have to wait in long queues for two hours, these people are treated like VIPs and are given entry in two minutes!”
He adds that an annual medical check-up is also done for the elders and follow-up action is taken, with the Rotarians helping out with medication.
And on every anniversary of this scheme on Aug 4 a “shahi bhojan is organised for the whole group. It’s a festive occasion; our Anns welcome them with an arti and we serve them a grand meal,” says Club Secretary Sunil Maheshwari.
Adds Miniyar, “Actually, everyday, the food they get is so tasty, that I often feel it is tastier than my home food, and often ask for a dabba and take it home after paying for it.”
Adds Mundada, the Club President, “The crucial point is that we have never run out of money for this project, showing that for good work there is never any dearth of money in Rotary.” He adds that every year the elders are given two sets of clothes and every four years a new set of utensils.
On why other Rotary clubs have not replicated this project, the Rotarians said that some replication has indeed happened. RC Wai, in the same RI District (3132) has started it, but gives only 25 meals a day. RC Latur also had replicated it but with a change; they send the tiffins to patients in a hospital. In Solapur city itself, a voluntary organisation, the Lokmangal Institute, is also doing a similar project. “They have said RC Solapur has inspired us and they give tiffins to 200 people. Another Rotary club has also contacted us for some details,” says Jhaveri.
(For details of this project contact one of the committee members — Sandeep Jhaveri at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jayesh Patel at 9823562303.)
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
Humney do-chaar husbands ko peeta hei!
The trickle-down effect that a scheme like Annapurna can have in the case for women’s empowerment is obvious when you visit the spanking clean kitchen where the SHG members prepared the meals. Chandrika Chauhan, who runs the NGO Udyog Vardhini, which has now mobilised 8,000 workers, says that all her women members work only in two sectors — food and tailoring. “I have found that when a woman is in huge distress, her mental make-up is not conducive to learning anything new. But there are two skills that she already has — to cook food and to sew… she knows some form of tailoring. So we just train them on variety and quality.”
Each woman takes home about ₹7,000 a month, is given clothes, and ₹400 for a child’s education. In most cases the husbands are either unemployed or alcohol addicts. “The household runs only on her income.” So is wife-bashing
common, I ask Chandrika. “Oh yes, but it has reduced a lot now. One, because the woman is now economically independent; and two, because we have beaten up some of those men,” she says with a straight face.
To my incredulous look, she grins and says: “Yes, madam, in a few cases, I have myself gone to the homes where the man used to beat his wife. I go with some six women, and first of all greet him, calling him my son-in-law. And then warn him, that this woman is my daughter and if you beat her, we will thrash you. And we have physically beaten a few men and now the message has gone down that if husbands beat their wives, we will not remain silent,” says the feisty woman.