For those feeding needy, service is its own reward

For those feeding needy, service is its own reward

Needy residents of the Rajendranagar slum in Bengaluru collect fresh food distributed by an NGO. dh photo/ akhil kadidal

The conditions are abominable, the faces thin and weary. But a palpable spark of anticipation ripples through the crowd at the sight of the battered Tata ace light utility truck as it winds down a narrow, dirty street towards them.

The truck trundles to a stop. Venkatesh Iyer, 63, trim and with a shock of white hair, alights with Suleiman, his volunteer driver, who opens the rear compartment door, climbs in and begins to hand out great stainless steel vessels loaded with food. Eager hands snatch the vessels and soon the truck is on its way to another location several hundred metres away.

Here too, other stainless steel vessels emerge to be handed to residents and at three other places before there is no more food to dispense. Many of the recipients are married women, a significant percentage are the elderly. For this crowd of poverty-stricken dwellers in Rajendranagar slum in Koramangala, the truck and its contents are the difference between having one proper meal a day and going to bed hungry.

Another recipient of the food aid is Lakshmi (named changed), a 62-year-old former maid who lives by herself in the slum. Her husband died a few years ago, she said, and although she has a son living in her native village, she described him as an abusive alcoholic, and that she could not go home.

She has become reliant on the food truck for her meals, because the free food helps her conserve her meagre finances. When asked what she would have done had the service not existed, she answered: “Everything is in the hands of God.”

“People say that there are no slums in Bengaluru,” Iyer says. “But this one is in Koramangala, one of the city’s poshest areas. This is a city with money and where even a beggar can survive. I shudder to think about [the situation in] Bihar and West Bengal where people don’t have money.”

For the last five years, Iyer’s charitable trust, Swabhimaan, has been collecting excess cooked food from three IT companies in southern Bengaluru and using them to sustain nearly 2,000 inhabitants in two slums (the other at Bommanahalli) for four to five days a week.

Rajendranagar slum has a population of nearly 12,000 families or 60,000 people, out of which nearly 5% (or 3,600 people) are starved on a daily basis, according to Iyer. Although the government has several schemes for those below the poverty line, not all of it is accessible, and so Iyer said Swabhimaan has been trying to fill the void.

Needy families can ask for a food card, which gives them access to the NGO’s once-per-day food deliveries. Only women are allowed to accept the food (although the charity has young boys volunteering to dole out the food), and each donor is given four portions of rice or 10 chapatis and curry, even if they live alone.

Many of the recipients were elderly women who had been abandoned by their families or women in their thirties with children at home.

“To do this kind of work, one needs passion because this is not work that will ever make you wealthy but it is work that requires total commitment, because you never know when your phone will ring, even in the middle of night, from somebody calling to say that they have excess food and asking if it can be given to the poor,” Iyer told DH.

Fraught with problems

Manav Charities in Jalahalli supplies food to slums in northern Bengaluru. It was initially started in 2010 by cooking food for the poor, but when a funding crunch stalled operations, they began collecting food from companies, wedding halls and events for distribution.

Rajendra Kulkarni, who runs the NGO, however, explained that the job of channelising food is fraught with challenges, including getting food to those who need it before it goes stale. “Corporate donors are petrified about the possibility that their food donations will go bad and cause gastroenteritis or something else and so many prefer to recycle their excess,” he said.

At high-end restaurants, meantime, concerns revolve not only around food going bad but also about the possibility that it will be used for monetary gain. When Christabel Daniel, a behavioural therapist, found that her favourite health-food-restaurant chain was trashing nearly 2,500 meals a day, she tried to convince the restaurant to donate the extra portions.

“The restaurant was initially hesitant because of concerns that all this high-rupee food would be resold,” she said, adding that the chain eventually relented.

Back at Rajendranagar, a thin, bare-footed boy with a great mop of hair dyed with blonde streaks, tried to snatch at a parcel of three chapatis being handed out to families. Iyer initially swatted him away before finally giving him a parcel.

“We dissuade children from receiving food because it could encourage them to start begging in other locations and because families sometimes try to secure extra portions by also sending their children. But what is important is that food must get to people who absolutely need it,” he explained.

At another stop, a 22-year-old young woman named Rani said ruefully that she was still hungry because the portions were less. Iyer nodded. “Sometimes, donations are low,” he said.

Many more people must do this kind of work, he added. “There is so much food in the city that is going to waste.”