Delhi soup kitchens keep hunger at bay

By Shweta Srinivasan, IANS,

New Delhi : Hemant, a part-time hawker, lives behind a roadside temple off Janpath in the heart of the capital. The 18-year-old has a new love – the Aap ki Rasoi (your kitchen) van that makes a stop at India Gate lawns every noon and gives him his one hot meal of the day.

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“I am alive today only because of this food,” Hemant, a migrant from Chhattisgarh, told IANS.

He posts himself at the India Gate lawns promptly at noon, with a beaten vessel in his hand to collect hot food for himself and two others who stay with him. The truck is one of a dozen vehicles in the capital from which hot food is served to hundreds every day.

‘Aap Ki Rasoi – toward making Delhi a hunger-free state’ is an initiative of the Delhi government. The pet project of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, it was launched in April this year under the Bhagidari (partnership) programme.

The government has roped in corporates to fund the production and distribution of the food.

There is a huddle of small beggar children at the end of the queue. Once served their hot dal (lentils), vegetables and rice, they squat just a few metres away and appear to be having a picnic under the mellow winter sun.

The van driver said: “The kids sometimes become naughty. They try to take more food. But we can’t give it to them. We have too many mouths to feed.”

The queue keeps getting longer. An hour after noon, there are hundreds waiting – beggars, disabled people, women, children…

By 1.30 p.m., the activity winds up and the truck leaves.

How is the quality of the food?

“It is quite tasty, we get a lot of variety,” says a disabled man who runs a mobile phone booth on the India Gate lawns. “Mostly we have variations of rice with sambar, rajma, or kadhi but some days we get roti (Indian bread).”

The soup kitchens are also run at 10 other centres around the capital.

“We are living in the national capital territory of the largest democracy. Despite this there are people who eat from garbage bins. We wanted to bring about a change, to provide at least one hot nutritious meal to the hundreds of people,” Kulanand Joshi, joint secretary of Bhagidari in the chief minister’s office, told IANS.

“We found it difficult to tackle the problem alone – so it was the chief minister’s idea to rope in corporates,” he added.

In partnership with the Delhi government, the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple runs a feeding centre at Nizamuddin. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) runs one centre independently at Chandni Chowk and another with support from DLF at India Gate.

A Banglore-based NGO, Akshay Patra, runs the remaining centres. It prepares the food and takes care of distribution on behalf of Hindustan Times at SPM market near Rani Jhansi Road and Jhandewalan; for Taj hotels at Regarpura in Karol Bagh; for the ITC group at Raghuvir Nagar; for the Neotia Foundation at G.T. Road, Shahdara, and for Reliance Fresh at Hanuman temple near Connaught Place.

While the corporates fund the various centres, the government, Joshi said, identifies and monitors the centres, “trying to cater to as many as possible”.

“Anganwadis (government-run creches), social district officers and primary health care centres also are involved to make them more effective,” Joshi added.

The cost of a single meal works out to Rs.6 to 8, including transport cost. Each centre feeds at least 500 people a day. Often the centre at Chandni Chowk ends up feeding 1,200 people. The numbers have risen in the winter. In all, around 5,000 people are being fed a hot nutritious meal every day.

While some of the firms felt they were fulfilling their corporate social responsibility by participating in the initiative, Iskcon says it is following its mandate – ‘food for life’.

“We and the government have the same mission,” said Balbhadra Das, director of Food for Life at Iskcon.

“We at Iskcon believe that food is a purifying influence – the food we serve is prasad. A majority of the hungry destitutes in the city are easily inclined to becoming drug abusers and get into crime. We feel wholesome food can bring about a concious change in values.”

The Aap ki Rasoi programme is striving to rope in many more corporates for future centres.

“The chief minister will review the programme in January 2009. Perhaps there will be some changes – but the focus will be to pool in more resources from small and large corporates,” Joshi said.

He hopes that the programme will pick up pace soon – to fulfil the chief minister’s dream of a hunger-free Delhi.