A bit of rice. A lot of happiness
What’s the fundamental requirement for human existence? Food. There are lots of men and women and children who fail to feed themselves, sometimes for days. Unlike most of us who talk, write, and read about the hunger problems in India, somebody actually is feeding the hungry. Recipient of ‘Karmaveer Chakra’ award and several other awards such as the ‘Commonwealth Points of Light’ by her majesty the Queen of England, Manju Latha Kalanidhi is the founder of Rice Bucket Challenge that works towards the conscious act of donating rice to the hungry
In 2014, when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took over the world, you started the ‘Rice Bucket Challenge’. What got you thinking about donating rice?
That was the last phase of summer, which drew my attention to the problem of water scarcity. When I heard about ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’, I thought about the amount of water one should freeze to gain one bucket of ice-water to pour on oneself! While I do not undermine the challenge because it was for a noble cause, I did think that for a country like India that suffers from water scarcity, we could not afford to waste so much water. Also, I was well aware of the hunger problems of the country, which made me replace ice with rice. After I uploaded the first picture of the donation, a lot of people told me that they were thinking of doing so. My photo and the concerned page received considerable likes overnight and the rest is history.
I know you from the days before the challenge. I didn’t see a streak of serving society…
Haha. Before I got married, when I lived with my parents, my mother cooked consciously, only how much was required. There were times I would come back home and tell that I wasn’t hungry for dinner because I had had something at work. Then it would become my responsibility to dispose of my share of food and I found it hard to dump it in the bin. Itna accha khaana phekne ka mann nahin karta tha. I often thought if there could be some arrangement for the leftover food to get distributed to the hungry. I also spoke to people around if we could leave the leftover food for the kids from the nearby orphanage to come and collect it. But people raised concern. Said what if the dog ate up the food, what if the food got rotten by the time someone came…citing so many issues around I gave up the idea, however, it stayed in my head and finally It saw the light of the day in the form of ‘Rice Bucket Challenge’.
Do you have a count of how much rice has the initiative donated so far?
2.5 lakh kgs of rice which impacted 10 lakh people. Ever since COVID-19 happened, we have donated nearly 26,000 kgs of rice.
Could you recall any special moment where the rice donation really made a difference to somebody’s life?
During COVID, a temple priest called to ask if I could donate rice to him. With the lockdown of temples, he hadn’t received the salary and offerings. Usually, I carry out a check on the recipient. However, the priest sounded genuine and needy. We sent him rice, daal, oil, and similar grocery items that the family — parents, sister, and the nephew — needed. They were in difficult times. The priest cried tears of joy. He performed a puja for me at his home. That was really special.
India is one of the largest producers of food. However, ¼ of the world’s undernourished population live in India. We have solved a lot of our problems, say for instance the advent of polyester has solved the need to cover everybody, easy access to mobile phones has connected the whole country…Why is food, which is the fundamental requirement for human existence, still a scathing issue in our country?
I think it is because of the faulty policies. The government’s intentions could be right, but it doesn’t serve any purpose if the policies are not executed effectively. We saw how the migrant workers suffered. The White Card couldn’t come to the rescue of many workers who happened to be in a different state for some days. There was no technology or mechanism that could verify the card holder’s credibility to give him or her the share of ration. That is why the Prime Minister later on came up with the One Nation One Card program.
There is a lack of imagination about implementation of policies. While we were conducting a rice donation drive during COVID, I asked a lady why she was there when the government had promised rice to the poor. She said the distribution happened only for two days a month, and when it happened that month she couldn’t be there because the rains had battered the road. Clearly indicated the ineffectiveness of the programs. The solutions must come from a grassroots level.
Since you ideated Rice Bucket Challenge, would you have suggestions for individuals on how to impact society?
To begin with, people should shun the notion of underestimating themselves. Most people are under the impression that only the rich can make a difference. No. You can. I did. I barely spent any money. Secondly, crowd sourcing is the way. We have the gift of population. If everybody donates even Re 1, a lot gets collected. It doesn’t take much to feed one person.
Manju, India is home to some really rich people. Some of them rank high in the list of world’s richest. I remember Shah Rukh Khan once said that he had three playStations. One for himself, one for his son, and the third one because he could afford it. Do you have any message to those who indulge such indulgences?
That’s exactly where the problem lies. We must live consciously. Indulgences are good, but they have to end somewhere.