Interview: Tara Patkar on feeding the poor through ‘Roti Bank’
“Roti Bank,” or “bread bank,” is a year-old effort to provide free food to needy people in the Mahoba district of the Bundelkhand region of India, a place that is suffering from a prolonged drought and a decreasing supply of subterranean water. Reuters spoke to Tara Patkar about how the programme works. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:
Q: How does the Roti Bank work?
A: Initially it started with five to 10 people, all of them friends. We decided to bring two rotis each from our homes, along with some curry. We thought we must complete this by 7 p.m. to have enough time to distribute the food. Now, we collect food from around 700 families. There are some centres where people come and take food, while we distribute it door to door also. It’s not possible to cover each and every area door to door, so we have also installed boxes at 21 places in Mahoba where people can drop food between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Q: How many people do you feed every day?
A: Around 1,000 people.
Q: Do you provide the food absolutely free?
Q: I am sure it was not at all a smooth ride.
A: When we went to important areas of the city to distribute food, everyone would start looking at us curiously. That made us uncomfortable. Some people even asked what were we doing. But when we told them, they appreciated our efforts.
Q: Did they offer to help?
A: Within a few days. This is how the movement spread, by word of mouth, from one person to other. In the first month of Roti Bank, we had 50 people with us and in three months, there were around 450 volunteers. Now we have around 1,000 people.
Q: How do you cover each and every needy?
A: I can’t claim we cover everyone. But we have provided helpline numbers and requested people to let us know about anyone who needs food.
Q: Bundelkhand generally is facing a food crisis because of droughts. Did you try to connect with those villagers?
A: Drought is one of the main reasons for food crisis. This area is traditionally arid. Also, not everyone owns farmland. A lot of people from this area have migrated to big cities like Delhi and Mumbai in search of jobs but they don’t earn enough to take care of their families back home. We contacted Pradhans (village heads) to know about such families facing acute financial hardships.
Q: Is it limited only to food?
A: At times, we provided clothes also. We requested people to donate their used clothes which were in good condition.
Q: Do you pay people to work?
A: There is no money involved at any stage. We even brought some doctors to our centres for health check-ups, and they didn’t charge anyone.
Q: How do you differentiate between people who need food and people who are just looking for a free meal?
A: Mahoba is a small town, so it’s relatively easy to figure out. But yes, sometimes some people do sneak in. We cannot stop the whole initiative just because of a few people.
Q: I read many similar ‘Roti Banks’ have started in various other parts of India. Are they all associated with you?
A: No, we are limited to Mahoba. But when the news about Roti Bank spread, many organizations contacted us to know how we work. I have been told there are around 100 such Roti Banks in India now. We got calls from countries like England and Sweden too. A man from Mahoba who lives in London posted about it on Facebook. Some people also offered financial help, but we didn’t need money, as there is no need of money in our model. We just asked them to do what we do – simply collect some food and give it to the needy.
Q: What were the main problems you faced?
A: Initially when we went to give food to people on streets, they refused. Possibly they were suspicious. Also, since a few youths were also involved, they were questioned by police to make sure they were not distributing items like drugs. We were also stopped at railway stations because the administration discourages passengers from taking food from unknown people. Usually burglars befriend the passengers and loot them by offering food laced with sedatives. Then we issued identity cards to volunteers. People also asked, why were we doing so much hard work? Did we have any political motive? However gradually, we managed to gain their confidence.
Q: Did the government administration help you?
A: Initially they didn’t take much notice, but when this initiative got highlighted in the media, district officials came to us and sought names of our beneficiaries this winter to provide them blankets. But when we checked with the beneficiaries, they said they didn’t get anything.
Q: Does this kind of charity discourage people from trying to be independent?
A: I agree it’s not a permanent solution. But most of the people who come to us are not in a condition to work. Most of them are elderly people whose children have migrated to big cities and don’t earn enough to send money back home, or they are too old to cook for themselves. After all, neighbors won’t help them every day. Also, there are beggars who are too weak to work.