It’s nearly 1 pm and the municipality community hall in Kakkanad neighbourhood of Kochi is a hive of activity. Inside the compound, a wooden desk blocks the passage to the hall. A wash basin, complete with handwash, sits on the left. Beyond the wooden table, on which a hand sanitiser sits forlorn, around eight women, all in white aprons and matching white tennis caps with cloth masks covering half their faces, are working furiously.
The menu today is simple: ney-choru (ghee rice) and chicken curry. The cooking’s done. One set of women are engaged in filling little plastic pouches with the chicken curry, while the others are tending to the rice. As soon as they are ready, a couple of men hurry over and bring them to the table at the entrance from where they are scooped into little bags by volunteers and delivered to homes nearby.
At a time when Kerala and the rest of the country are under severe lockdown as part of measures to tackle coronavirus, the little morsels of food that get sent out from this makeshift community kitchen in Thrikkakara municipality are central to the hunger-free project of the state’s Left government. And powering this kitchen and scores of others across the state is the ever-dependable army of Kudumbashree, a powerful self-help network of 43 lakh women.
On Wednesday, when chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan spoke of opening community kitchens to feed migrant workers and destitute families, the councillors of Thrikkakara municipality didn’t have to think hard on whom to rely for support. They simply dialled the grassroot-level neighbourhood units of Kudumbashree who immediately jumped on board. Within no time, the kitchen was opened Friday morning to serve breakfast.
“These are women who run exceptional catering services. Soon, they will handle it entirely,” said Nazar, an independent councillor who helped set up the kitchen.
Kudumbashree, meaning ‘prosperity of family’ in Malayalam, was formed in 1997 as a three-tier community network aimed at empowering women in each family and making them drivers of change at the grassroot level.
Over the years, their success, due in large part to their enterprising abilities and hunger to volunteer, have challenged male hierarchies in a deeply-patriarchal state. From driving taxis to running Metro ticket counters, operating paper mills to orphanages and day-care centres, they have done it all. And so when each government faces an arduous task such as the present one, they have happily relied upon Kudumbashree.
“Kudumbashree’s success was that it was able to discover these women who want to function as public servants. More than improving wages, they have shown an inclination to volunteer and do something for the society,” said Manjeesh, a district programme manager with the network.
Back at the community kitchen, as the last of the food packets get bundled up, the Kudumbashree cooks in white aprons with the ubiquitous logo of three flowers on their pocket sleeves have a bit of time to rest. And then they have to start prepping for dinner: a simple meal of rice and sambar which has to get delivered at doorsteps by 8 pm.
“We distributed 380 packets of chapathi and vegetable curry in the morning. Lunch and dinner are for 500 people. Tomorrow, we are expecting to cook food for nearly a 1000 people, a majority of which would go to migrant workers” said Nazar.
The process to identify beneficiaries for the community meals across Kerala is pretty straight-forward: the local panchayat ward members/councillors, ASHA workers and anganwadi teachers comb through every home in their jurisdiction, making a list of those who need food.
They add a few dozens, keeping in mind the destitute and homeless. A helpline number is also provided on which people could call and enquire about the service. The state government has already started assigning volunteers, mostly young people who have private vehicles, who can transport supplies and cooked meals.
Nazar adds that he’s been getting dozens of calls from youngsters wanting to volunteer. “But because the government has instructed that all safety protocols have to be followed at community kitchens, we’re careful. Look at me, even I’m standing outside. The staff inside can go out only after they complete the shift.”
Riyaz, a computer technician, is among those who have signed up for the volunteering programme. He waits in front of the wooden desk at the entrance for his share of food packets to be delivered in his neighbourhood. He works at home for a few hours and then engages in volunteering services like these.
When asked if such welfare programmes could turn out to be a burden for the government, he replied, “There’s no burden at all. There are so many young people like us waiting to see how we can support the government. All that we spend is on fuel, which is practically nothing.”
There’s optimism inside the kitchen too. Nisha, one of the Kudumbashree cooks who runs a catering agency called ‘Nirbhaya’ in her neighbourhood, is not wilting under pressure just yet. She understands the demand for cooked food will go up in the next couple of weeks, but she’s unfettered.
“During the floods, we helped cook for 2000 people. So this is nothing,” she said, with a smile.