Opposite the canteen of the School of Engineering in the Cochin University of Science and Technology, or CUSAT, stood a rectangular room stocked with groceries—burlap sacks of onions and potatoes, several kilos of wheat flour and boxes filled to the brim with pale green cabbage. The room also contained gas cylinders placed on top of each other, and large steel utensils. In any other year in Kerala, it would have been safe to assume that the supplies had been stored in anticipation of a grand feast for Onam. But there was nothing celebratory about the purpose of this room. A poster at its entrance read: “Indian Navy INS Venduruthy Flood Relief Supplies.” Since 18 August, a team from INS Venduruthy, a naval base located on Willingdon Island in Kochi, aided by members from some other units, has been working round-the-clock at this makeshift community kitchen to prepare food for survivors of the calamitous floods that swept Kerala this monsoon.
When I visited CUSAT on 22 August, a naval officer sat behind a table amid the stocks of provisions. Speaking to someone on the phone, he introduced himself, “Yes, I am Lieutenant Commander Jayaprakash. Catering service in the CUSAT campus.” After a brief pause, he spoke again, “Madam, you listen. My food was prepared by 11.30. Based on your request, you told me to prepare another 300 ... Now we are calling you to come and take this food.” It was 3.30 pm, and Jayaprakash appeared to be losing his patience.“I have been hearing you say ‘15 minutes’ since 12.15.” Every day, the lieutenant commander and his team have woken up hours before dawn to prepare food for the thousands of survivors residing in relief camps in Ernakulam. That day, the team had prepared meals for 300 people for an order that had not yet been collected. “It is not the materials’ cost,” Jayaprakash continued on the phone. “You please try to understand there is a human cost also behind this.”
Jayaprakash has been serving in the navy for 23 years, and had never participated in relief operations before undertaking his present role of heading the work at the CUSAT community kitchen. “We have a team of four officers, 17 chef sailors and support staff of 14 other people,” he told me. He said the navy’s kitchen was set up in the university at the request of the Ernakulam district administration, and that they had served “92,699 meals till lunch today.” A whiteboard in the kitchen kept track of the number of meals required by various camps. At the time, 5,272 meals were to be sent to ten relief camps in Ernakulam, in addition to the food that had to be prepared for the approximately 4,000 survivors staying in the CUSAT camps.
The kitchen serves three meals a day to the survivors who stay in the relief camps close to the kitchen, and prepares additional meals every day for external camps, which are collected daily by volunteers. Jayaprakash said that, on an average, the kitchen prepares 5,500 to 6,000 meals per day, for all the relief camps combined. Every day, the kitchen begins functioning at 2.30 am and runs till 9 pm, during which time it prepares a variety of items, including upma, pav bhaji, dal tadka, rice, chapatti and payasam. Besides cooking, running the community kitchen also involves planning in advance for procuring the supplies and dispatching the high number of orders to different camps. According to Jayaprakash, about 80 percent of the supplies come from the naval base, while the rest are donated.