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.
Jayaprakash, who is a Malayali, seamlessly switched between Hindi, Malayalam and English while addressing his team members, visitors or me. The team comprised people from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. “I do any work allotted to me. Chopping vegetables, loading and unloading,” Ajit Punia, a 19-year-old trainee at the Kochi naval base, said. At around 6.30 pm, RA Maurya was preparing dinner—manoeuvring a long ladle through a container filled with dal tadka. “I am from Uttar Pradesh,” he said.“Rahul Gandhi,” Maurya added, prompting me to guess that he hails from Amethi.
To receive food from the navy’s kitchen, the relief camps outside the university campus had to send a request to the Ernakulam district collector. Jayaprakash explained that this process was necessary because the kitchen would be unable to serve every camp if they accepted requests out of turn. The camps that the district collector had approved for service that day included those at the Kalamassery Higher Secondary School and the Bharat Mata College.
At the kitchen, I also met Joshy P Sudhakaran, the 48-year-old village extension officer of the Edapally Block Panchayat, under whose jurisdiction the CUSAT campus lies.He emphasised the vast reach of the kitchen’s preparations. “The affected parties who have come here also include those who have come from other camps, which got flooded,” Sudhakaran said. “Under Edappally block, there are Elankunnapuzha, Mulavukadu, Cheranallur and Kadamakudy”—all regions in Ernakulam district. “People from these four panchayats have come to this camp, besides those from Kalamassery municipal area. People from Alangad block and other places also had to be accommodated here.” According to Sudhakaran, even the relief camp at the Union Christian College in Aluva municipality, which he said is the biggest camp in Ernakulam district, sources its food from the navy’s kitchen in CUSAT. “On one of the days, the kitchen prepared meals for 9,000–10,000 people only in the Aluva camp,” he added.
People have slowly started vacating the camp, but many still return to eat. Sudhakaran explained, “They go home and see filth, snakes and dead creatures in their homes. Obviously they cannot cook food there. So even though they have left, they come back to eat food at the camps.”
The survivors at the camp have developed a bonhomie with each other and with the CUSAT student volunteers. “A man had to go to his house in Varapuzha for cleaning. Someone with him offered the keys to his bike and told him to go clean his home,” Vishnu KU, a student volunteer recounted. “They had known each other only for two days.” Anisha PU, another volunteer, who is pursuing a PhD in Hindi at the university, spoke of the relationships she had formed at the camps. “In a week’s time, we became attached to the people. When they leave, they tell us that we should go and visit them,” she said. While we were talking, a woman looking evidently worried approached her and said, “My husband had bleaching water by mistake.” Anisha consoled her, “He has been given medicines. Doctors are available 24x7.” The student volunteers take the flood survivors for check-ups to the doctors, who offer voluntary treatment in another building in the university. The students have been volunteering full-time as CUSAT is shut for Onamvacations.
Dinner in the canteen was served at 7 pm on the dot. The area became crowded but everything proceeded in a calm and orderly fashion, as the survivors queued up to serve themselves on ceramic plates. That evening, the menu included chana dal, a potato-based dish, rice, roti and payasam. Volunteers walked around the canteen carrying glasses of warm water, looking out for anyone who needed it. After dinner, as people left towards an enclosed room to wash their hands, two volunteers collected the leftover plates. The canteen finally closed at about 9 pm. The only people who were yet to eat were the navy staff.