It is said that one of the highest forms of service is to feed others. Atul Ajmera believes in this so sincerely that he started a movement around it in his town of Osmanabad. After five years of diligent work, this movement has gathered the support of hundreds and has helped feed many thousands in the impoverished region.
“I was born and grew up in Osmanabad. We lived very close to the civil hospital. Even as children we would often see people who would come from far off villages to treat their family members at the hospital. They would struggle to find a basic meal there. It was a very sad sight.” Osmanabad is located in the drought-prone Marathwada region of Maharashtra. It is one of the most underdeveloped districts in the country, with no industry and a lack of basic infrastructure. The cases of farmer suicides in the region in the past several years are testament to the terrible conditions in which the needy are forced to live.
After the 2013-14 drought which has a very adverse effect on the region, Ajmera felt that he needed to something to help the larger community. Ajmera had recently moved back to his hometown to be an entrepreneur in the education space after leaving Larsen & Toubro in Mumbai as an engineer. As if by divine intervention, he happened to see a video of Azhar Maqsusi on WhatsApp—a man who feeds hundreds of people on the street in Hyderabad daily. At once, Ajmera knew he has to serve the community. If someone in Hyderabad could feed people, he felt he could definitely do the same in his own backyard. And so, it was settled—Ajmera and his friends would supply food to the people who came to the civil hospital to accompany the patients.
“For the poor farmers, it is never as simple as just coming to the hospital,” explains Ajmera. “People have to travel sometimes 60 km up and down just to get their family members treated. They also have to arrange their own food. This means a cost of Rs 1000-1200 just to get your meals, that too in drought conditions. So, you can imagine the pressure and tension the family is under. People at home are often stressed and when one person is ill it is like the entire family is under a cloud of worry.”
To ease their mental strain and to support their efforts, Ajmera decided to start a service of providing a basic meal of rice and vegetables to the people waiting outside the civil hospital. A few of his friends got 30 people together and asked for Rs 1000 donation per month from families in the region. Soon, they had enough funds to get started and Annapurna was born. The place they found to establish their service was just outside the hospital and belonged to a relative. “Things just seemed to fall in place one by one,” says Ajmera. “It is almost as though the work was supposed to happen through our hands.” The civil hospital which used to have 50 beds now has 200 beds. “I like to think that Annapurna had some part to play in the growth of the hospital.”
Similar to their work outside the civil hospital, Annapurna began supplying food to the Kushtidham (a shelter for leprosy patients). “The place was very badly maintained, with lack of clean water and sanitation. During rains, the roof would leak and there would be rats scurrying everywhere,” says Ajmera. It was the local municipality that approached Annapurna. “We were more than happy to supply the food but it was 7km away, so we requested that they arrange a rickshaw and take the food.” It has now been four years since they started taking care of the Kushtidham as well.
Soon, items such as chapatis were also added to make the meal more wholesome. In order to make the service safe and trustworthy, Ajmera decided to make their operations more professional. Using the power of social media, he put out the word that they required a shed. Soon enough, an amount of Rs 60,000 was crowd-sourced. And within two days, a shed was built. Today, the Annapurna kitchen employs three people to make close to 6000 meals a month under hygienic and safe conditions. All the necessary licenses are in place and the kitchen is monitored via CCTV. “I am sure that if you are within a 300 km radius of Osmanabad, you have eaten Annapurna’s food at least once,” says Ajmera.
Even during the lockdown, Annapurna continued to supply food to the needy. “At first we were worried about supplying the food. But the Collector knew that we do good work and she asked us specially to help the people during this time.” As a result, a home-delivery system was started. “Fifteen of us divided the map amongst ourselves and as pairs we would go on a bike and deliver safe and hygienic meals to peoples’ doorsteps.” This went on for a good two months. The facility at the hospital also continued but with the new social-distancing norms in place. The costs for running the service quadrupled, so Ajmera and his friends chipped in from their personal accounts. “We had to keep it going no matter what. But with the new restrictions in place it has become difficult to sustain our model. We request that more people contribute to our cause so we can sustain ourselves for longer,” he says.
Ajmera’s dream is for Annapurna to be present in front of every civil hospital in the country. Community Service has a new name in him.He says that he would like to support the needy with every opportunity he gets and encourages other to follow in his footsteps. “Annapurna has now become a part of our lives. Every day we close our businesses for one hour to serve the people of our community. The friends and connections that I have made through this activity and the bonding that we have because of it cannot be replaced,” Ajmera says emotionally. “Whatever we have today, in terms of our material success, and in our lives in general, is all thanks to the blessings from Annapurna.”
Where there is a will there is a way – Atul Ajmera just showed us. You have the will; we will show the avenues where you can support. Giving Circle was born to bring such meaningful change makers closer to you so that you get inspired and start your own movement or Join them to have them grow.