By Shreemayee Das
D. Sivanandhan worked in the police force for over 3 decades and hung up his Khakis as the Director-General of Police, Maharashtra. The poverty he witnessed in his job changed his entire mindset. At a young age, he had seen food shortage and poverty before India witnessed the Green Revolution in the 1970s, but as a police officer, Sivanandhan came across street children who were forced to resort to petty crime to satisfy their hunger. “I realised roti was the priority, even more than kapda and makaan,” he says. In 2017, Sivanandhan started Roti Bank, a non-profit trust in Mumbai that delivered meals to the underprivileged and the hungry. In 2 years, the trust had delivered 1 million meals, and the aim for 2020 was to deliver 2 million meals in the year.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the nation-wide lockdown imposed, Sivanandhan was, at first, hesitant to carry on operations. But if they didn’t help now, when would they, he thought. He arranged for PPEs and protective gear for all Roti Bank workers and volunteers and even got them medical insurance. “When the challenge becomes tougher, you become tougher,” he says, with a laugh, almost brushing aside his immense contribution and the difficulties he faced in the last few weeks.
Currently, both the Mumbai and Nagpur kitchens of Roti Bank are open, with the Mumbai kitchens (along with some hotels) serving around 30,000 meals every day and the Nagpur one serving between 5000 to 6000. The volunteers in Nagpur have even set up tents on the highway to provide food and water, to migrant workers who are walking back home, and arranged for vehicles to help transport pregnant women. Meals typically include rice, roti, dal, and a sabzi but they’ve even, in the past, had tie-ups with brands like FoodHall and Bigbasket who have donated biscuits and cakes, to make the menu a bit more interesting.
What amazes Sivanandhan though, after all these years, is the way people come out to help, individuals, and corporations alike. Roti Bank works with corporations like Essar Foundation and the SBI canteen, and has even received donations from actors like Vidya Balan, Diana Penty, and Shahrukh Khan’s Meer Foundation. “The generosity of Mumbai is unbelievable,” he says, claiming that he’s got funds to continue this for at least six more months, and he’s planning long-term.
His message to all Mumbaikars, especially as an ex-police officer, is to be safe and to prioritize your own safety. Once you’re safe, you can think of helping others, or people can help others through digital sources like crowdfunding or writing songs, poetry, and creating art. The younger people can help senior citizens in their own housing society. “But rule number one is to prioritise your safety. Rule number two is that if you have any doubts, check rule one.”