BANGALORE: In 2000, around 1.2 lakh children applied for the mid-day meal programme, in the vicinity of a 10 kilometre area around ISCKON temple. The response was overwhelming, but not a good sign as it was testimony to the fact that a number of children were going hungry, in a city that has been branded as the IT Capital of India.
To fill this gap, Akshaya Patra (which is now a seperate entity from ISCKON)stepped in. The Little Blue Bus became a familiar sight in the city, which carried nutritious, piping hot food to the schools. The teachers of schools, we visited claim, “Attendance has drastically improved in the government schools where AP is serving food, since the launch of their meal programme.”
The world’s largest midday meal programme for underprivileged school children in India, Akshaya Patra currently provides 1.3 million children everyday across the country, what may be their only hot meal for the day. It aims to reach a target of 5 million children by 2020. Though no NGO can boast of their unique PPP model, they know the target is not easy.
Akshaya Patra COO Jagadish Ramaswamy, who came on board just 2 months ago, has got a tough job on hand. “Operational efficiency, workflow management, sustainable process, eliminating waste, efficiency of scale and good revenue mechanism,” he says confidently. He comes with a strong corporate background having worked with MNCs in the past.
When we question him on this sudden shift and why he chose Akshaya Patra, he says, “The decision wasn’t sudden. I have been considering this for the past one year. I wanted to give something back to the society and be a part of the change. I had a passion to work for underprivileged children. What better than this opportunity. Plus AP had a very good system in place and transparency in accounts. ” He adds, “Majority of the children in India are malnourished and they are going to be the future of our country. What we are doing is not charity, but it’s our social responsibility.”
Having said all this, Akshaya Patra has had its share of brickbats. In fact there is a website dedicated to the apparent ‘fraud’ committed by Akshaya Patra. When we read out the information provided in the website, Jagadish patiently listens and says, “There is not an iota of truth in any of the details you read out. I have spent an enormous amount of time before getting on board here. And, when you operate in India, with the recent cynicism attached to NGOs, you are bound to face such criticism. A lot of NGOs wonder how we have been able to manage such an organised midday meal programme in the first place.
Unfortunately, when you dig into such sources (internet) there are a lot of things written about us, without any basis. Even if there is a water problem in schools and vessels aren’t clean, we are blamed. Our staff are constantly being bombarded. They have been instances where our buses have been stopped and our staff questioned. Our route coordinators don’t know how to answer the media and the public.
Sekharam is a third party agency appointed by the National Human Resource Commission to monitor the effectiveness of mid-day meal schemes. The agency spoke to the manager and they projected something else to the media without cross checking with us (about the bad quality of rice which is provided by the government). As long as the children and teachers know what we are doing, it doesn’t matter what the rest think. We are an internally focused organisation and we can’t get affected because of external factors.” On claims that the vegetables are cut the previous night and the food served not being fresh, he disagrees and says, “Anyone can come over to our kitchen in any of the units and watch the cooking process. You can come here and find the truth yourself. The cooking to consumption time is 6 hours as stipulated by the government. We don’t cut vegetables the previous day and even if we do, we have a cold storage system in place.”
He stresses, “You need to understand that with the amount of food we prepare, we can’t start cutting all vegetables on the day of cooking. Our cooking starts by 4:30am everyday and by 9:30am, the food is packed and loaded onto the buses. I have reports of nutrition values which are published by a third party lab appointed by the government. For a full week, everyday (once in 2 months) cooked food is given to the lab and if there is anything wrong, our quality assurance officer is independently authorised to shut down the kitchen.”
“In Patna, they have blacklisted 15 NGOs and wants us to take over. I want to connect with the schools we are working with and it is their feedback which matters to us.” Akshaya Patra currently functions in 9 states around the country and has plans to start in Bihar, UP, Jharkhand and Gujarat (hopes to reach out to 1 million kids in the state). Jagadish also plans to implement employee engagement programmes for the NGO’s 4,970 strong employees. He says, “We want to ensure that children of people who work for us are getting education. So, we will provide them scholarships and get their families engaged. I want to rotate responsibilities among them right from the driver, cook, food supervisor to route coordinator. We also ensure that every employee visits a school each quarter.”
He realises that they can’t afford to shut shop even for a day unlike other industries. And to ensure that fresh food reaches each child they take every care possible with the state-of-the-art technology they employ while preparing meals. He says, “Risk is always outside the kitchen. The environment in the school where the food is served might not be conducive,we want to address that problem.”
He also tells us that just because the kids are poor doesn’t mean they aren’t choosy about the food they eat. Hence, they have 29 kinds of food items in their menu which varies with each state.Though 60 per cent of the cost is borne by the government, they still have to depend on corporate donations for the rest of the funds. Around Rs 1250 is the cost of a meal for a child for an entire year and they are working towards making the experience of the donor unique by showing the donor how the money they gave was utilised.
He adds, “I used to create good customer experience, whereas now I want to create a similar experience for the donor. The donor would like to know how the `100 or 500 he donated made a difference and I want them to feel connected to the organisation.” Donors can also choose to adopt schools or kitchens. Though he acknowledges the strong government support and says, “We would be nothing without them,” at the same time, he wants to be measured on the quality and calorific value, rather than the quantity of rice.
Another drawback is that Akshaya Patra attracts 12% service tax, as they are looked as caterers since they also serve the food to the children at schools, other than cooking and transporting it. They have also asked for concession on LPG. With this, we wish that the little blue bus continues to carry hope to the millions of kids in the country. He signs off saying, “Treat every child like how you would treat one who comes to your home.” It’s just one meal, but its cumulative impact is a strong and educated India.