Baidyanath Dharamshala, next to Rashtra Sant Tukdoji Regional Cancer Hospital & Research Centre in old Nagpur, is usually deserted for the better part of the day: most of the boarders here are family members of patients at the hospital and spend much of their time there. Every evening, though, the dharamshala comes alive with laughter and conversation when Seva Kitchen volunteers arrive with free food for the boarders.
Reena Banjara’s husband, a construction labourer from Chhattisgarh, has oral cancer and is being treated at Rashtra Sant Tukdoji hospital; with both out work now, they are running out of money fast. “We get good food, free, once a day,” says Reena Banjara, who is lodging at the dharamshala. “This small saving means a lot,” she adds.
At your service
Reena Banjara’s relief can be traced back to the weeks Khushroo Poacha, a railway official in Nagpur, had spent with his mother at Nagpur’s Central India Institute of Medical Science (CIIMS) when she was admitted there in 2014.
The hospital, located at the centre of Nagpur, draws patients from far and near. Although CIIMS is considered expensive, middle-class people from the hinterlands come here for the quality of treatment it offers. Patients’ relatives usually fail to find suitable accommodation in the surrounding expensive areas and often end up on the pavements.
“I would observe people outside the hospital — mostly patients’ family members — cooking chapatis on the footpaths, eating it with chilli powder or onions. I was already sad because of my mother’s illness, and this made me more miserable,” Poacha says. While patients get food in the hospital, the accompanying relatives, who sometimes have to stay on for months at a stretch, usually find the rates of the hospital cafeteria — or indeed of any decent eatery in this area of the city — too high.
Bothered by what he had witnessed at CIIMS, Poacha asked his friend, Amit Badiyani, whether he could feed a few people at the hospital once a week. Badiyani agreed, and he and his wife began taking food to CIIMS every Sunday, serving people on the pavements.
Poacha had prior experience in helping people in need of medical assistance. In 2000, he had started the now ubiquitous IndianBloodDonors.com, an online portal which helps people find blood donors.
Poacha’s mother passed away later in 2014; though grieving, he retained his interest in the work the Badiyanis were doing. “There would be 200 people rushing for 25 plates,” he remembers Badiyani telling him. “I asked Amit how much he spent, and he said ₹1,500.” Poacha’s managerial instincts kicked in: ₹60 a plate sounded expensive. “I thought ₹1,500, economically spent, could feed more than 200 people. We set up a kitchen in my house, and on November 23, 2014, we cooked a meal for 50.”
The next Sunday, they upped the number to 200, and carried the food to CIIMS on a handcart. He was joined in by his family, his brother’s family and the Badiyanis. They continue to do this every weekend: the initiative was named Seva Kitchen, which has expanded since to cover hospitals not only in Nagpur but in five other cities — Hyderabad, Delhi, Bengaluru, Thane, and recently, Mumbai. Most of the hospitals, including CIIMS, allow them to distribute food inside the premises.
Seva Kitchen’s expansion has been brought about mainly through discussions on the social media. Soon after they had started, someone had posted about the initiative on Facebook, and Poacha was flooded with requests from people wanting to join them, as well as with donation offers. But Poacha would accept only donations of seva , service.
“We decided that it has to grow through compassion and not money,” Poacha says. The group now has 500 core members working for 11 hospitals in different cities.
Poacha’s project did not stop with Seva Kitchen. A couple of years later, the group came up with the idea of installing a refrigerator in hospitals which would stock healthy food — milk, juice, biscuits, fruits — that would be given out to patients and their relatives for free. CIIMS agreed to host it, members chipped in, bought one and installed it on new year’s eve, 2016.
They called it Neki ki Pitara, Box of Kindness. “Since then,” Poacha says, “almost every month we have been installing refrigerators at various hospitals.” All are paid for out of group members’ personal funds. Social workers attached to the hospitals inform Seva Kitchen volunteers when stocks run out, and volunteers refill them. “It costs between ₹5,000 to ₹7,000 to refill one; we have been doing that too without donations.” In fact, Poacha notes, smiling, “There is strong competition to refill; there have also been fights!”
Poacha hopes that the idea will spread even further. “We plan to open Neki ka Pitaras in schools for orphans and the lower-income groups.” The challenge, he says, is getting hospitals to agree; he hopes hospitals will approach the group rather than having members plead with them for space and permission.
Meanwhile, the group has come up with a food-sharing app, also called Seva Kitchen, which will help people share excess food with those who need them. Since its launch in the peak party season, the week between last year’s Christmas and January 1 this year, the app has seen just over 500 downloads and 313 registrations.
Next on the to-do list is a possible tie-up with Mumbai’s legendary dabbawallas to collect and distribute excess food.