Akshaya Patra celebrating its 3-billionth meal is a big milestone and points to how welfare-spend must evolve
Philanthropy of any sort is to be encouraged and celebrated, but when it is married to scale, its impact increases manifold. The Akshaya Patra Foundation commemorating its 3-billionth meal, on Monday at Mathura with prime minister Narendra Modi present, is one such example of the societal impact of philanthropy-with-scale. What began as feeding children of just five schools in Bangalore—the school authorities thought it was a one-off like many people do on the birth or death anniversary of a loved one—in 2000 grew impressively, and became an integral part of the government’s mid-day-meal scheme. Today, Akshaya Patra feeds 326.5 million meals (in FY18) through 37 kitchens and the plan is to raise this threefold by 2025; the 1.75 million children are spread across 15,786 schools in 12 states. And, apart from the children, Akshaya Patra feeds the beggars’ colony in Bangalore, widows in Vrindaban, and it used to feed prisoners in the Bangalore jail, some 50,000 people every day during the Nepal earthquake in 2013-14 and 10,000 people every day during the Chennai floods in 2015. There are even mobile kitchens to feed 5,000-7,000 people every day during the Kumbh Mela, the NTR canteens in Andhra Pradesh feed 60,000 people at just Rs 5 per meal and 2,000 homeless are even fed every day outside the London School of Economics in the UK. The model is a mix of government subsidy—Akshaya Patra gets wheat and rice free from the Centre and some states pitch in with money—and donations; in FY18, government support worked out to Rs 204.5 crore as compared to Rs 252.6 crore of donations.
While states like Tamil Nadu have a long history of the government providing heavily subsidised meals going back to Kamaraj and MGR, what makes Akshaya Patra different is the sheer scale of operations and automation; to put the Akshaya Patra numbers in context, the RSS runs over 17,000 schools across the country with over 2.2 million children studying there. Because of its scale, Akshaya Patra has been able to automate its kitchens and put in place almost corporate-style standard operating procedures—one SOP is that the food has to be cooked at 90 degrees and be served to the kids in their schools at 62-65 degrees. The automation ensures not just volume and speed, but also hygiene, since there is very little human intervention—one automated cauldron of rice cooks enough for 1,000 children in 15 minutes, sambhar for 6,000 kids in 90 minutes and the roti-maker churns out 40,000 rotis per hour.
While Akshaya Patra is even looking at running schools and other forms of educational programmes in the future, its NTR-canteens offer a glimpse into how governments can shape their welfare programmes; the state government gives Akshaya Patra Rs 73 per day for three meals a day, so if some other government wants, such canteens can be a good way to ensure that no one in the state goes to bed hungry. A reasonable split between the Centre and the state and CSR-funding should make it affordable. Indeed, a welcome addition to this is the kind of subsidised insurance-based social security—like Ayushman Bharat insurance for medical treatment and Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY) and Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) for accident and life insurance, respectively—being done by the Modi government; while 13.48 crore people have bought the accident policy, 5.33 crore have bought the life insurance one. With great scale of the type Akshaya Patra has for delivering freshly-cooked meals, and Aadhaar-based solutions to prevent theft and to deliver benefits more efficiently, India’s social security is poised for a dramatic leap forward.