Each morning at 7.30am, the street outside Tata Memorial Hospital in Parel is abuzz with activity. People are queuing up a short distance away as volunteers and employees from a local NGO swiftly hand out packets of milk, along with freshly made chapatis and fruits like bananas, apples and sweet lime. Hot breakfast items such as dal rice, khichdi and lapsi (a coarsely ground wheat-based dish) are also served on a rotational basis each day. The people lining up for this meal are cancer patients and family members of those undergoing treatment at the Tata Memorial Hospital, but living outside on the pavement. Over 600 such underprivileged people benefit from these meal services on a daily basis, thanks to these warriors who are trying to ease their financial burden.
Tata Memorial Hospital is a leading specialist cancer treatment and research centre, providing treatments at subsidised rates and often free of cost for low-income individuals. People from all across the country flock here to avail of these low-cost facilities, from as far as West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Assam. However, with most patients unable to afford room and board, having typically exhausted their funds on treatment, the people who come here often end up staying on the pavement outside of the hospital, even for months at a time. Accommodation provided by the hospital is also limited in number.
So, the thought of getting hot, freshly-cooked meals is a matter of much comfort for these patients and their kin, instead of having to shell out a few rupees on unhealthy foods like vada pavs from local street stalls. The hospital also provides free meals during lunch hours within its premises to nearly 500 patients a day.
For the last 33 years, local NGO Shri Vardhman Jagruti Yuvak Mandal has been serving these breakfast meals to cancer patients and their families. According to Nitin Sheth, who has been with the NGO since its inception, the need to provide them with healthy, nutritious meals is paramount. “We don’t give them any deep fried foods or baked goods like biscuits that can hamper their health further,” he points out, adding that the food is made fresh every day at the NGO’s kitchen close to the hospital. Nearly 700 packets of milk come from a nearby dairy and over 2500 chapatis are distributed each day. The organisation earmarks a budget of nearly Rs 30,000 per day to cover these meals.
Fortunately, there’s been a growing awareness about this and more helping hands have joined in. Last fortnight, Dr Prince Surana, CEO, Surana Group of Hospitals, launched an initiative to provide hot meals to patients and their kin every evening. “It’s hard enough to deal with a debilitating disease like cancer and not have access to a decent meal. What we noticed was that people were receiving breakfast and lunch, but were often going to sleep hungry.” Now, evening meals are served to nearly 150-200 patients and their families on a daily basis. “We’ve tied up with some local vendors to serve fresh, hot meals such as chapatis, a fruit, some rice and sabzi, and on some days, either kadhi or pulao. “We encourage them to bring their own food containers to minimise waste and also be environment-friendly,” he adds. The plan going forward, he says, is to help touch the lives of 500 such patients.
While these are similar to the soup kitchens run by community and volunteer groups in places like the US, these organisations go beyond providing meals, helping patients with medicine costs and boarding as well. According to the hospital spokesperson S H Jafri, nearly 65,000 new patients come to Tata Memorial Hospital each year. A majority of them struggle to find places to stay, given their low income status. The need of the hour is helping these patients with accommodation, he believes. Given the stressful, unhygienic conditions that come with living on the pavement, help like this would indeed go a long way.
Wondering how you can be of aid? Contributions are welcome at the Tata Memorial Hospital as well as trusts like the Surana Charitable Trust and Shri Vardhman Jagruti Yuvak Mandal. If you wish to physically volunteer you can do that by getting in touch with the hospital directly, or these organisations.