“When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.”
There are several government schemes in our country that aim to provide meals to those who live below the poverty line. Many of these policies do not see the light of day, let alone have an actual impact on the lives of the said poor. But while large organizations conduct surveys, analyze data and present statistics, there is one man who’s skipped all the jargon and red tape, and gotten straight to implementing the solution. Meet V Venktraman, who provides one-rupee meals to a very specific, and oft-neglected, section of society: needy caregivers of patients.
He is not a wealthy man and has no other source of income. Like most of us, he has a family to look after. His wife is a freelance yoga teacher and both his daughters are in college. He has little savings. One would expect a man like him to constantly think of ways to develop his business and make more money. That’s what ‘normal’ people would have done anyway. But 50-year-old Venkatraman is a not a normal person. He has elevated himself by his noble thoughts and deeds. His only concern is to see how he could continue with the lunch at ₹1 scheme at his hotel. For over five years, Venkatraman has been giving lunch every day for about thirty persons at Shri AMV Homely Mess near Erode Government Hospital for just ₹ 1. The beneficiaries are mostly attendants of poor in-patients from the nearby Government General Hospital, who pay just ₹ 1 for a meal that is priced at ₹ 50 for other customers.
Tokens are distributed daily to about 30 poor people at the hospital. The token holders then collect their food packets from the restaurant in the afternoon. How does he select his beneficiaries? “We visit the wards, at times we know by the look of those who come to our place to buy food. We prefer to support the attendants of those families where the bread winner of the family is in hospital for a long duration and there is no earning member to support. Normally such poor families run out of their savings within the first week and run out of credit options, within two weeks. If the bread winner has to take long to recover, then, they are most helpless even amongst the poor. The hospitals feed the patients, but, no one will feed the poor attendant which is the wife of the bread winner in most cases”, he says. “We also look for signs of wealth when we visit, if we notice lots of jewelry or mobile phones, we politely refuse and take back the token from them”, he adds. Sometimes he requests nurses at the hospital to identify the needy and distribute tokens to them. An old woman has been eating here for the last six months. He also offers 20% discount on food prices to any physically challenged and blind person who visits his eatery.
Venkatraman has served at least 40,000 @₹ 1 meals till date. The prices of food grains, oil, spices and vegetables have gone up many times in the last four years, but the one rupee lunch has remained unaffected. He ensures that the poor get the same meal that his other customers get for ₹ 50. “For other customers, the price has been revised. Five years ago, the cost of a lunch at our hotel was ₹ 25; now it is ₹ 50,” he says.
Venkatraman was born in a joint family of 30 members. So, helping others came naturally to him. “When I was young, there were times when I struggled to get one square meal a day. But now God helps me to feed others. Sometimes we cannot help others despite wanting to do so. But I am able to do so by God’s grace.” He says he started this impulsively as consulting others would have led to only confusing advise, ‘I didn’t start this with any support in mind, nor have registered any NGO for this. It is our duty to support the needy.
This extraordinary effort started in 2008 when a woman who had admitted her relative to the general hospital came to his mess to buy idlis for herself and another relative. When Venkat informed her that the idlis were over and suggested dosas instead she told him that since dosas were more expensive, she would not have enough money to buy food for two people and that one of them would have to go hungry. That got Venkat thinking. “I knew I had to do something. Sometimes the patient gets hospital food but it’s their caretakers and relatives who stay hungry. If you look at the profile, they are mostly daily wage earners,” says Venkatraman.
“Initially I had planned to give them a free meal. But then I felt they might be embarrassed, and perceive it as charity. They may also worry about the quality of the food since it is free of cost. Therefore I decided to charge a token amount of ₹. 1,” he explains. Though he is facing financial difficulties, Venkatraman receives solace from the ‘divine blessings’. Does he get any outside support? ‘Not much, but, sometimes, people give him ₹.100/- or 50/-, some people can’t afford to support a full meal in orphanages or old age homes on their birthdays or some other such important days, for such people, it is easier to give whatever they can afford to us. “We write their name in a board in our eatery to ensure that their donation is acknowledged”, he says. “There are donors from America. People celebrating birthdays or other special occasions can sponsor food,” says Venkat.
“I have the full support of my family in whatever I am doing. My second daughter scored 1085 marks (out of 1200) in her Plus 2 exam. We were unable to admit her in engineering college because we could not afford the fees. But thanks to a person in Ramakrishna Math, she got a seat in a reputed engineering college in Chennai. The management has also given her a fee waiver. “I have reasons to believe that such good things have happened in my life because of the small acts of service to the poor I have been doing. It gives me great satisfaction,” says Venkatraman. He wants to keep the initiative going; hoping to reach out to 100 people a day.