Within a few days of starting KVN Foundation after a phone conversation on March 25, the trio realised that they would need 80G status for tax deductible donations. Narayana, who is the CEO of real estate developers Prestige Group, contacted the commissioner of income tax in Bengaluru on March 29. The requisite forms were signed and approved that day. Says Narayana, “This is the first time places of worship were closed. Indirectly, even god was saying, ‘Don’t come to me. Sort it out yourself'.” In Mumbai, former police commissioner Rakesh Maria helped with introductions.”
In Chennai, meanwhile, the municipal corporation controlled distribution with an “iron fist”, recalls Ganesh, the venture capitalist behind Big Basket and Portea, because it was concerned about the risk of food poisoning. The foundation was using the kitchens of Hunger Box in Noida, Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, the corporate canteen food aggregator that supplies TCS, IBM and Cognizant, but the municipality rigorously inspected the kitchens anyway. Ganesh broke into Tamil to replay the compliment paid to the organisation by one of the municipality’s officials. They reported that while some free food was pushed aside after two bites, people waited for the foundation’s FeedMyChennai truck.
Over lunch in a small room adjacent to the giant kitchen of the Hunger Box affiliate that routinely cooked 24,000 meals a day in Bengaluru during the lockdown after starting with 500 on March 27, the success of the world’s speediest start-up is easily understood. The passion in the room prompts a flash flood of anecdotes, more a high-spirited college reunion than a business lunch. Despite hours on calls together for two months, Narayana and Ganesh were meeting for the first time that day. The platform of Hunger Box vendors — Ganesh is a backer of the startup — in different cities allowed them to start with 5,000 meals in Noida and 10,000 in Chennai on the first day in those locations.
Corporate know-how and ‘know who’ networks took care of the other challenges. Funding fell into place with crowdfunding via Paytm’s platform and a more than Rs 1 crore donation targeted at Noida where Paytm is headquartered. Corporate leaders spearheaded the effort in other cities such as R Ramaraj, co-founder of Sify, and Gopal Srinivasan of TVS Capital Funds in Chennai. Perhaps because none of the founders has a background in restaurant management and the start-up was founded at such a challenging time, KVN’s cost per meal was Rs 30, considerably higher than the Rs 18 per meal reported by some restaurant owners who were part of an even larger effort by the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI). The KVN founders said they wanted to adhere to corporate standards, but presumably so did restaurateurs.
The energy of civil society — the NRAI delivered more than six million meals to migrants despite being the industry among the hardest hit by Covid — has starkly contrasted with the pillars of the Indian state. Parliament has not convened, not even by video-conference as in other countries. The army, with its thousands of kitchens and large trucks, has been missing in action.
KVN, meanwhile, kept daily progress reports and sought customer feedback, tailoring menus to the demands of migrants from different parts of the country. Najam Abbas, the co-owner of the affiliate that supplied meals in Bengaluru, says in some parts of the cosmopolitan city this meant tailoring the food to appeal to Bengali migrants, in others it meant delivering south Indian offerings such as bisi bele baath. Abbas and his partner Sri Ram Samanthu convinced their managers and supervisors to drive food trucks because they were short-staffed and even did so themselves, occasionally carrying the food into cul-de-sacs in slums that were inaccessible to vehicles.
The urgency of the cause helped the effort time and again. Overnight, the Noida effort needed thousands of rotis. Marwaha, who is Sikh, made a call to the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in New Delhi. For weeks afterward, 25,000 rotis arrived at the Hunger Box location in Noida from the gurdwara at 10.30 am every morning. “We wanted to keep it ‘a-religious’,” says Marwaha.
Yet in these dystopian times where India often seems obsessed with religion on social media and in political campaigns, the cosmopolitanism in the room is admirable. The corporate canteen that fed hundreds of thousands of meals to migrants in Bengaluru is owned by a Muslim and a Hindu. KVN’s founders include a Hindu CEO of a property giant whose owner, Irfan Razack, is Muslim, Ganesh, an entrepreneur who made his first multi-millions selling a company he founded to the British education giant Pearson, and a Sikh, who manages a property consultancy headquartered in Britain.
Over delicious lemon rice and vegetable pilau, both staples of the meals provided to migrants, politics is discussed only in passing. When I ask why they chose not to provide train fares to migrants, Narayana explains that they had raised money from donors to feed people and that the issue had become highly politicised. They received a call from police anyway to provide meals for a few thousand migrants at a large ground in Bengaluru, assembled there as they waited for trains. Marwaha recounts seeing some migrants opt to leave clothes behind to make room in their bag for the food package, a bottle of water and a Frooti juice. As a property consultant might do, he tried the tap in a migrant train he briefly boarded. It had no water.
For two hours, the stories flowed from these subcontinental Scheherazades, masks moved well below the chin early on. There was probably enough good karma in the room to keep the virus at bay. As Narayana said of their 12-14 hour workdays, “We were feeding our souls.”