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Social service starts at school in Shimla

Sarita Brara | Updated on November 30, 2019 Published on November 30, 2019

Sarbjeet Singh helps provide food, free, to attendants of patients — through chapati donations by school students

It is late in the evening, the temperature is down to 7-8 degrees Celsius outside but inside the kitchen-cum-dining space close to the IGMC hospital in Shimla, it is warm with steaming hot curries, kheer, porridge and rice, and hot chapatis rolling out in dozens from a reheating machine.

Family members of patients, who had been waiting outside for free meals, are crowding in. A small prayer for the sick to get well soon and then the hot, cooked meal is served as women and men take their seats.

Hundreds of men and women who come from the remotest corners of the hill State accompanying patients admitted in different wings of the hospital get meals free of charge — from breakfast in the morning, lunch in the afternoon to dinner, every day, all through the year.

“It is a great help to people like us,” says elderly Mukhiram from Urtoo village in Nirmand tehsil of Kullu district, who has been accompanying his wife, Champkali, to the hospital every 21 days for the last four years. Champkali was operated on for cancer of the uterus in 2015 and since then they have been coming to IGMC’s cancer hospital for her treatment and to undergo various tests required from time to time and to also get their monthly quota of medicines.

“I need ₹3,000-4,000 in my pocket every time I come here. While the treatment is free, one has to spend money on travelling to Shimla and bear daily expenses as I have to stay here for at least a week. I pay ₹60 per day to get a quilt to cover us in the biting cold. I would have had to sell my cultivable land if I had to also spend money on food every day for the two of us,” says Mukhiram.

This is the story of a number of the families of patients, specially those suffering from cancer. More than 40 cancer patients come to the regional cancer centre at IGMC for chemotherapy every day.

The trigger for the movement

“I would often see that some of the attendants would share the food meant for the patients as they could ill afford to buy food from the canteen or dhabas near the hospital,” says Sarbjeet Singh, popularly known as Bobby, the brain behind this voluntary service.

Bobby was already a familiar face in Shimla as he would take the dead in a van to the cremation ground.

Initially he started offering free tea and biscuits to the attendants of the cancer unit. But thanks to his out-of-the-box thinking and donations in kind and cash from people in Shimla, he started a free meal service for patients on October 25, 2014. This service, including breakfast, lunch and dinner, is availed by at least 3,000 people, says Bobby.

“Not a single chapati is cooked here. All the chapatis are given by 25,000 children of schools in Shimla and then reheated at the time of serving,” he says.

Loreto convent school, Tara Hall, Shimla, was the first school to respond to the initiative. Each student of the school is requested to carry a few chapatis every Monday and Thursday.

Besides, a few students of each class, accompanied by their guardian or parents and class teacher, also volunteer to serve the langar (free community meal) in the Cancer Hospital in the evening (dinner time).

Principal of the school, Sister Nirmala, says this has been done to instil in students compassion and gratitude as well as a sense of responsibility towards the deprived sections of society.

The chapatis are collected through vans run for the purpose. There are 40 chapati banks in Shimla. “While everything is cooked here, I have decided that we will not make the chapatis here. The idea is that people should get involved in this voluntary exercise.” This arrangement is managed mostly by volunteers, though there are a dozen persons employed, including the drivers.

Many families in Shimla sponsor meals or contribute in any which way they can. The cost of running this free kitchen every day comes to ₹35,000-40,000, sometimes more, says Bobby. Amit, who manages the transport, spends time in the evening serving in the kitchen. “I feel real happiness doing this work.” Many professionals give their spare time.

Every cancer patient is provided with milk and fruits in the ward itself. Besides, three ambulances provide free pick-up and drop service for patients of cancer, thalassemia and haemophilia from the homes in Shimla.

The initiative started by Bobby is now gaining in other towns in HP. “I always tell people to organise langars in places like hospitals because I feel that serving humanity is the biggest religion.”

His next mission, says Bobby, is to ensure that families of patients don’t sleep outside. A shelter close to IGMC is now in the pipeline.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on November 30, 2019
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