Vikash had always been a social worker and had started the Shivohum Balaji Trust in 2016 for this purpose. The funding for the Trust as well as Apni Roti, which became an entity in 2019, came from his own construction company. Despite being a small business (without a mandate for corporate social responsibility) it was always understood that the Vikash and his company would do something to help society. This was the unique factor which made Apni Roti possible in the first place.
The inspiration for Apni Roti came from meals-on-wheels or food trucks that Vikash would see around the city. The idea was to use such a vehicle to distribute free meals. “We wanted to serve something that was beyond all castes, religions or other divisions. Roti is something that everyone enjoys. It belongs to everyone. That is where the name Apni Roti came from,” says Vikash. Even today, many families struggle to put up three meals. There is usually only one bread earner in the family and their income is not enough to feed 5-6 members. The result is that families often go hungry. “The stomach needs to be full for the mind to work,” says Vikash. “By feeding a needy family some fresh food, we are doing them and their loved ones a great service. We are enabling them to carry on.”
While the concept was in place, the technology that would be required to bring the idea to fruition was not easy to come by. And so, Vikash and his colleagues went to work. The machine that they would have to create to make rotis would need to be light enough to drive around, small enough to fit in the back of a small truck and efficient enough so it needed the least amount of human intervention. “We didn’t want to use a gas cylinder the way it is used in commercial food trucks. And we wanted the process to be very non-intensive. The machines that were available for roti-making on a large scale were only found in commercial kitchens. They would never fit inside a truck. And even if they did, they would be too heavy to drive around the city.” Realizing the complexity of the project, Vikash recruited mechanical engineers from his construction company to work on this idea. Finally, after six months of research and hard work, a prototype was designed. But the challenges were only beginning for Vikash and his team.
Unfortunately, no manufacturer was willing to make such a machine for them. “We approached many people, but none would take the risk. They were convinced that this machine would never work.” Finally, they found one vendor in Delhi who was ready to take a swing at it. Two years after the first prototype, the machine for Apni Roti was finally mounted onto the van. The first few weeks were stressful to say the least. “What if the machine stopped working? What if we sent it out on the streets and then it went bust? We would be crushing people’s expectations,” says Vikash reminiscing about the early days.
If the machine was the issue on the one hand, it was the suspicion of the beneficiaries on the other hand that kept Vikash and the team on tenterhooks. The first time the van went out into the streets and slums of Kolkata, people were confused. “There were all kinds of rumors and discussions about Apni Roti,” says Vikash amusedly. “Some asked if we were doing this to convert black money to white. Some thought were testing out our rotis. Others wondered if this was some kind of a paid advertising for aata. Then there were those that went around saying that the food is free now but will be chargeable later!” But as the days went by, the less fortunate began to recognize and appreciate the Apni Roti van. Soon, there were large queues of people waiting to be served hot, fresh rotis with ghee and pickle. “Today when we go to these areas, you overhear people being very grateful that the van has arrived. They even take some extra rotis for the evening from us.”
The Apni Roti van now serves up to 1500 people a day and more than 5 lac rotis a year. Only the best quality ingredients are used so that the rotis are healthy and nutritious. As if that weren’t impressive enough, the technology that Vikash and his team have created ensures that the Apni Roti van is now the most effective way to reach schools, disaster areas (landslides, floods, etc.) and pretty much anywhere that hot and hygienic food has to be supplied quickly. Only two people are required to run the vehicle, while some volunteers help with crowd control. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this mobility has been very helpful in feeding thousands of people in the city. The concept of Apni Roti has been ahead of its time in this regard.
Inspired by the Apni Roti initiative in Kolkata, some individuals in north West Bengal have funded their own van. Yet another van has been sponsored by a businessman in Kolkata itself, taking the fleet up to three. With every new van, the equipment is tweaked and improved so it functions better and better. The running costs of the vehicle and supplies such as aata, fuel, etc. cost about Rs 12,000 a day. Apni Roti gets 10-12 sponsors a month to cover the running costs while Vikash’s construction company takes care of the costs for the rest of the month. “We are now trying to seek help to take this initiative to other parts of the country,” says Vikash, “Our aim is to have 100 such vans one day.”
Vikash’s dream that nobody should go to bed hungry is slowly becoming a reality and Giving Circle commends him and his team for this glorious effort. We recognize the importance of various elements such as technology, innovation and social service coming together to give a unique offering to people in need. And therefore, Giving Circle wishes to bring together people from different walks of life, to brain storm and give back to society.
Now you can become a part of such initiatives by joining a Giving Circle or starting your own. If you wish to donate to Apni Roti, you can do so here. Apni Roti also has its own app through which you can register yourself as a volunteer.