Kochi: Kerala, which boasts of the country’s highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate among its accomplishments, will add one more distinction on Republic Day, seeking to disprove the saying that “there ain’t nothing like a free lunch”.
On 26 January, its third largest city, Kozhikode, will launch the Hunger-Free Kozhikode project, serving up free meals at the state-run Kozhikode Medical College Hospital and the private Beach Hospital where a large number of patients and their visitors may be too poor to pay for food. The programme may be extended to other places later.
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While the practice of providing free meals to the poor exists in cities across the world, operated mainly by philanthropic and faith-based institutions, this is the first time in the country that it has been made part of a city administration’s official agenda.
“We thought we had to take social security welfare projects forward and with a lot of individuals and voluntary organizations willing to cooperate, we have decided to go ahead with this new project, for the first time in the country, so that no one in the city or those coming into the city goes hungry any day,” said P.K. Sreemathy, Kerala’s minister of state for health and family welfare.
Tokens or coupons will be distributed in the mornings at both hospitals to those who can’t afford to pay. The meal will be vegetarian, with rice, a curry, a side dish and pickled vegetables. The kitchen at the medical college and hospital—which can cater to as many as 500 people at a time—will initially be used to prepare the food.
The task of distributing the coupons and serving food will be undertaken by members of Kudumbasree, the poverty eradication mission of the government that engages women who work for self-help groups.
“We are working on the modalities and would like to extend the token centres and meals distribution centres to other places in the city. We are in talks with some of the orphanages where there are facilities to provide meals,” said M. Bhaskaran, mayor of the Kozhikode corporation, the city’s municipal body, who heads a public-private partnership that will oversee the project.
Ironically, though, there is no food-assistance programme for the city’s own destitute, and it seems unlikely that they will benefit from the project. The mayor said the project will instruct Kudumbasree staff to ensure that people who turn up to eat the free lunch maintain at least a basic sanitary level to be able to sit in the common dining space.
Kozhikode’s cultural mores also discourage accepting a free meal and officials hope that this will dissuade freeloaders. The Hunger-Free Kozhikode programme will start by serving at least 10,000 people daily, including the roughly 4,000 patients at both hospitals and their accompanying guests, he said. The Medical College Hospital already provides a free breakfast of bread, milk and an egg daily to patients who can’t pay for it.
“Kozhikode has a tradition of benevolence where feeding the poor is undertaken by several religious and social organizations and also well-to-do families,” said P. V. Chandran, managing director of Kerala Transport Corp., a city-based company that has offered assistance to the programme. Such programmes help forge community bonds, Chandran said.
“This is a unique programme to ensure continuation of a Kozhikode tradition. And hence the government decided to implement it first in this city,” said A. Pradeep Kumar, the city’s representative in the state assembly.
Hunger-Free Kozhikode has a budgetary allocation of Rs65 crore for fiscal 2009, but will be carried over to the next fiscal. Of this, Rs2 crore has been set aside to provide free cancer treatment for all children under the age of 18 in the state.
The initial plan was to have a subsidized food assistance programme, serving a meal for Rs2 for those accompanying patients to the two hospitals. Following discussions last week between the corporation, local members of the legislature, political and social leaders and voluntary organizations such as the Lions and Rotary clubs, it was decided to provide free meals and benefit more people.
“Several Keralites outside the state, especially abroad, can afford to sponsor a day’s meal or at least part of it. We will be looking at tapping this resource too. Government funds then will have to be utilized only when needed...,” said Pradeep Kumar.