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Monday, September 25, 2017
Operation Sulaimani: A District Collector’s Mind Blowing Initiative to Feed the Hungry in Kozhikode
I The people of Kozhikode are silently funding an initiative that feeds anyone who is hungry for free, with utmost dignity.
“Nalla Manushyar Aanu” – “They are good people.” This is a default comment that you will hear about the people of Kozhikode, Kerala. From its fabled auto drivers who return every penny of change, to its palliative clinic that provides free care for the terminally ill, to simple heart-warming selfless conversations, the tales of Kozhikode’s good hearted people are greatly cherished.
Now here is a reason why you will also chime in with some words of praise – Kozhikode makes sure no one in the city goes hungry! Be it the poorest, the not so poor, be it you or me – the hungry will be served food for free, with utmost dignity.
People in need can collect a free meal coupon from any of the distribution centres and walk into any restaurant in the city – a meal will be served, no questions asked, no explanations sought.
Restaurants in Kozhikode serve meals to the hungry in exchange for free coupons given away by the authorities.
“We cannot ask a hungry person to get his hunger attested by a certified gazetted officer! That is why we insisted on the philosophy that ‘no questions will be asked’. If you ask for a food coupon, you will get it, it is as dignified as that,” says District Collector of Kozhikode, Prashant Nair, the chief architect of this project called ‘Operation Sulaimani’, eponymous of Kozhikode’s very own local black tea, served with a dash of lemon and cardamom.
The project was launched by Kozhikode’s District Collector, Prashant Nair, who envisaged this as a community owned and community driven initiative in its entirety. The Collector’s office initiated it and the Kerala State Hotel and Restaurants Association roped in over 125 city restaurants to become a part of this.
But, there are no big sponsors nor do any government funds flow in. The small and big contributions by the citizens are dropped into little boxes with ‘Operation Sulaimani’ inscribed on them.
The volunteer team has placed the boxes across the city, into which nameless donations are made. This money is used to reimburse the meal coupons that are collected at the restaurants. Interestingly, Team Sulaimani does not take a penny from the collected money to meet its administrative costs. This money is meant only to feed the hungry, they insist.
In April 2015, Operation Sulaimani made the free meal coupons available at the Collectorate, Village and Taluk offices. Coupons were also distributed along with newspapers with the intent that people who read newspapers can offer the coupons to those in need. An army of volunteers went around the city to spread the word and distributed the coupons.
Just two days after the launch of Operation Sulaimani, the Collector got a massive one crore donation offer, which he refused. Yes, he refused!
Kozhikode Collector, Prasanth Nair
The team believe that the spirit of Operation Sulaimani lies in the collective responsibility taken by the people to care for each other rather than an act of benevolence by any individual or organization.
This collective spirit has proved to be indeed powerful by feeding 9000 people in the last one year, not running out of funds, and not showing signs that the city’s good spirit will allow them to run out too.
One of the striking aspects of Operation Sulaimani is the fact that it gets fulfilled within the capabilities of existing systems. No big kitchens to feed the hungry were built and no massive funds were sought in the name of hunger eradication. By leading people to any restaurant in any part of the city, it blended the cause into the everyday function of Kozhikode’s restaurants.
The District Collector adds, “There is no food wastage nor do we have to worry about the safety of the food. If we had chosen to build a large kitchen to supply free food, we would have all these problems. But we just decided to use the existing system and make the best use of it.”
One of the restaurants in the vicinity of the city mental hospital feeds several people who come in with coupons. The restaurant owner says his life has never before felt so blessed.
Coupons can be exchanged at local restaurants for free meals.
Many restaurant owners like him do not want to take the reimbursements but Team Sulaimani insists that they are paid.
Some people doubt if such a facility will be misused, but the team is not worried about that. Rather, it is finding it challenging to reach more people who are in need. The members found that hunger is not just about the people on the streets, the homeless, it is also discreetly present within our communities. Reaching these people and making them aware that food is the last thing they need to worry about is what the team is obsessed with.
If you noticed, we haven’t got any quotes from any beneficiary of Operation Sulaimani nor put up their photos. Team Sulaimani believes that the dignity of the people should not be infringed on, and we salute that spirit.
How a Thoughtful IAS Officer Used Tourism to Combat Hunger and Malnutrition in a Tribal Community
A simple meal scheme and a tourism idea wiped away hunger and malnutrition among the tribal people of Wayanad. All thanks to the inspirational work done by IAS officer Prasanth Nair.
Sometime in the early 1980s, when Indira Gandhi was the country’s prime minister, there was a human rights crisis brewing in the hills of Wayanad, Kerala. Wayanad, a tourist paradise, is home to a large number of adivasis or indigenous tribal people. The adivasis have lived in these hills for at least the last 300 years. But over the years, greedy landlords in the area have often subjugated them and used them as bonded labour. They were even sold as labourers to tea plantations. When this exploitation came to the notice of the government, a rescue operation was mounted and the tribal people liberated. But, what next? Where would the rescued people go? Thankfully, the authorities were farsighted enough to conceive of a livelihood opportunity for these people.
Priyadarshini Tea Estate, eponymous of the then Prime Minister, was founded as a co-operative to rehabilitate the indigenous tribes by giving them shelter and employment.
Tribal workers at the Priyadarshini Tea Estate
Set up with the purpose of supporting the adivasis, Priyadarshini was never about profits. The tribal people found a safe haven as workers of the tea plantation. Elected tribal people were part of the estate’s board to empower them in participative governance. But, the initial welfare momentum did not last long. Corruption and mismanagement plagued Priyadarshini. The estate saw several strikes and lockouts for prolonged periods, and once again misery befell the lives of the tribal people. With no work and no income, the worker families started going hungry. They resorted to tobacco chewing, not as much for intoxication as for suppressing hunger. As late as 2005/06, people were dying due to starvation and there were suicides too. This humanitarian crisis sent chills down the spine of Keralites.
The government intervened again. This time, with the hope of bringing better governance and reviving Priyadarshini, the state decided to bring the estate under the direct supervision of the sub collector of the area. Thanks to this move, IAS officer Dr. Balkar Singh, Sub Collector of Mananthavady, Wayand, became the managing director of Priyadarshini. Balkar Singh was committed to helping the people and began the groundwork for Priyadarshini’s revival. But, unfortunately, he was transferred within a very short period. Sankaran, a tribal worker at Priyadarshini recalls, “We thought our destiny had hit another roadblock. But thankfully we had good times in store for us.”
A new IAS officer, Prasanth Nair, fresh from his IAS training, took charge as Managing Director, Priyadarshini Tea Estate, in 2009.
Prasanth Nair IAS
The young officer was determined to do his best to change the lives of the tribal workers for the better. He dug out details about the history of the estate, the accounts and other minute details to understand the problems plaguing Priyadarshini. Of the many complex issues he unearthed, there was a particular one that caught his eye – the medical reimbursement expenses of the estate were extremely high. “People were falling sick rampantly and most of them suffered from malnutrition. It was food that was at the core of the problem. I realized that the workers were toiling at the plantation, morning till evening, without getting proper food to eat,” says Prasanth Nair.
Nair wanted to make nutritious food available to the workers. But there was no budget for it nor could he expect the workers to pay for it. Food had to be provided free of cost. He scoured for ideas and his eureka moment came when he hit upon the idea of connecting tribal well-being with tourism.
Wayand is a charming hill station on the Western Ghats and there was a huge demand for accommodation facilities for tourists. There is a bungalow on the Priyadarshini estate, which was built for its Managing Director. But neither Nair nor his predecessor had ever used the bungalow since they had their sub-collector’s residence. Essentially, the bungalow was unused. “Why not convert this building into a tourist resort?” was Nair’s game changing idea.
He proposed this to the administrative officers of Priyadarshini and they were thrilled. Together, they decided to make Priyadarshini a tea plantation resort, christening the resort ‘Wayand County’. The bungalow had just four rooms, but the building and the 400 acre tea estate carried their own unmatched charm. The team readied the bungalow and the estate to host tourists. A few tribal youngsters were trained to become guides. Some were even sent far down the hills to learn to become chefs. A trekking route was mapped out and an enchanting viewpoint identified. They called the viewpoint ‘Vishwas’, as a symbol of belief and hope for the people. Slowly, tourists started coming in and Wayanad County became a much sought-after resort.
Vishwas view point
The success of the resort was more about the tribal people than of tourism. Nair and his team had decided on and even formulated a policy at Priyadarshini that all the money from Wayanad County would be used to provide meals for the workers. Initially, the food was the simple traditional kanji and payargruel and green gram, but the change was tremendous.
Malnutrition and illnesses dropped within just three months, and so did Priyadarshini’s expenditure on medical reimbursements.
“Linking tourism to tribal welfare was not easy. It was even seen with suspicion by many. We did the impossible by linking it with daily food which everyone could easily relate to. The workers did not have to worry about hunger anymore. Their faces gleamed and their sense of relief was palpable. What food can do, probably nothing else can,” says Nair. The then Secretary of the estate, Babu Rajendran, says “Providing food for the workers has been the most satisfying work I have ever done in my career. I saw the transformation that the people went through from starvation and malnutrition to having a satisfying meal every day.”
To everyone’s delight, the tea production at Priyadarshini too peaked during this time. From annual tea production of 6 lakh kilos, the numbers surged to 14 lakh kilos. Never before had Priyadarshini seen such high output levels.
Prasanth Nair and his team also built new houses for the workers, getting rid of the earlier dilapidated shelters. Bank accounts were opened for every worker. Wayanad Tea County added more rooms and brought in more tourists throughout the year. On the whole, there was good food, good homes and happy hearts in Priyadarshini. And then, it was time for Prasanth Nair to leave.
Prasanth Nair was there only for two years but his work changed the course of Priyadarshini’s destiny. One old tribal woman poignantly asked him, “Will they stop our food if you leave?” Thankfully no, Priyadarshini continues to provide free meals for its 300 workers. The new Sub-Collector, Sambasiva Rao IAS, is now leading a new wave of change in Priyadarshini. The Priyadarshini Tea Factory, which had shut down many years ago, has started functioning again. Efforts are under way to help the next generation of the tribal community find more lucrative jobs than what the estate can provide. Plans are also ongoing to add newer revenue areas like adventure tourism.
“So if you plan a trip to Wayanad, you might want to consider staying at Wayanad County. What you spend as a tourist will feed over 300 people,” says Prasanth Nair, who deeply cherishes his tenure at Priydarshini Tea Estate.
Nair carried forward his experience at Priyadarshini to Kozhikode where he now serves as the district collector, and initiated Operation Sulaimani, a much appreciated free meal coupon scheme that ensures no one goes hungry in the city.
ll Town in Uttar Pradesh Is Teaching the World How Hunger Can Be Beaten with One Small Step
Tara Patkar and his team of volunteers started Roti Bank to make sure no one sleeps hungry in the town of Mahoba. Roti Bank collects food from over 500 households and feeds more than 1000 people every day.
You may never have heard of Mahoba, a small town in the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh. But the residents of this small town are doing something truly heartwarming and commendable. They make food in their homes to feed the town’s hungry and homeless. An extra portion of simple roti and sabzi is made in the kitchens of over 500 households, collected by volunteers, and distributed by shops in the town.
The initiative was named Roti Bank by Tara Patkar and the small team of 10 who helped him get it off the ground; today they feed at least 1000 people every single day.
“All ideologies and philosophies are of no use if there is someone near you who goes to sleep on a hungry stomach,” says Tara, who used to work as a journalist with Indian Express in Lucknow. “I became a journalist so I could contribute to society. But I felt I needed to do more work on the ground. So I left my career to devote all my time to social service,” he adds.
Tara returned to Mahoba, his home town, and together, with like-minded friends, started Roti Bank in April 2015. The team would go from door-to-door, explaining the idea behind making a little extra food for the hungry. To their pleasant surprise, over 40 households readily agreed to contribute. Next, the team approached shopkeepers in the town centre to find out if they would be willing to place distribution boxes in their shops. Even here, the team got an overwhelmingly positive response.
Roti Bank’s model is simple – households make and pack rotis and sabzi. The households decide how much they wish to give. Volunteers pick up the food in thermocol boxes from people’s homes and deliver them at various designated Roti Bank locations, which are mostly shops. Volunteers and shopkeepers distribute the food to the needy. People can have as much food as they want, for free.
Since Mahoba is a small town, news of what some households were doing spread fast. Many more people wanted to join in.
Within the next three months, the number of households providing food for the hungry rose from the initial 40 to 400!
Another heartfelt gesture came from the children of St. Joseph’s School in Mahoba. The school requested parents to send some extra food along with the lunch boxes they packed for their children. Now, the schoolchildren contribute to the Roti Bank too!
The biggest beneficiaries of the Roti Bank are old men and women, and beggars. Some villagers from around Mahoba also come to the town just to get food. Thankfully, there’s food for everyone.
“At one point there was surplus food – so much so that we had to discontinue taking food from some houses. We then regulated the process to make sure there was minimal wastage. The extra food was fed to cows and buffaloes,” says Tara Patkar.
Tara Patkar, Founder, Roti Bank
Mahoba is ill-famed as a backward region of Bundelkhand, with its humble people still struggling for electricity, water and healthcare. But, through the Roti Bank, they have banded together to solve a huge humanitarian issue, upholding people’s right to food.
Inspired by the example of Mahoba, many other towns, and even cities such as Indore and Bhopal, have started their own Roti Banks. Within a year and a half, over 100 Roti Banks have mushroomed all over Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. And admirably, all this has happened without a single rupee being given or taken! The Roti Bank refuses to take any donation for its work. Tara has even refused the awards people wanted to give him for his selfless service. He says his reward is people starting Roti Banks in their own towns.
Your city or town could be next! Tara Patkar and his team are more than willing to share their experience with anyone who wants to start a Roti Bank.