The story of an IIT Mumbai graduate who left a secured future in search of the absolute truth and meaning of life. It is his life mission to feed the children through the hugely successful Mid Day Meal Scheme and now transitioning into the realization of dreams of these children through mentorship. Excerpts from the conversation Madhu Pandit Das, the Chairman of Akshay Patra Foundation has recently been conferred with the distinguished Padma Shri Award for recognizing his services towards children of India.
Q The ‘Giving Every Dream a Chance’ project is a format enabling the dreams of a child to be achieved.What is the way forward in this project? What areas of mentorship programs are you looking at and how does the sponsorship program work?
Identifying children with uncommon dreams and facilitating them in realising their dreams, under the guidance of a mentor was how ‘Giving every Dream A Chance’ came into existence. Going beyond meals, the Foundation embarked on this pilot project with a belief, ‘every child has a dream, and each dream is valid.’ Harbouring on this principle, Akshaya Patra aims to identify and nurture 100 beneficiaries with dreams across India.
Under this initiative, the Foundation will initiate sponsorship/scholarship programmes to ensure continued support to these handpicked hundred, for enabling their dreams. Several areas of mentorship programmes have been identified in disciplines of art, literature, science and such areas. Depending upon the beneficiaries’ preferences, they will be put under the tutelage of mentors who will coach, train and guided by them in their respective fields. Carrying forward the objective of nurturing dreams and nourishing young minds, the Foundation will continue to provide platforms for talented children with diverse passions and interests in fulfilling their dreams
Q Does Akshaya Patra focus on the upliftment of girl child or is it gender neutral?
Akshaya Patra has always believed that the development of the country can only be achieved through the inclusive development of every section of Indian society, especially its women. To achieve this, we strive to provide food for education to every single child in need, irrespective of their gender. Through this programme we have impacted the girl child thereby witnessing a rise in female school enrolment. In most economically challenged families, the girl child is denied the opportunity to enrol in schools.
Daughter are retained at homes to look after their younger siblings, help their mothers with household chores, or even take up occupation to contribute to the family income. However, with the introduction of the free and nutritious mid-day meal, parents are now more eager to send their daughters to school as it relieves them of the burden of feeding an extra belly.
This has resulted in a rise in the enrolment of girls in schools. As per the study conducted by AC NIELSEN, in Bhilai a visible impact on attendance rate was seen among the students of class I- VII with 82.3% and 84.9% for male and female students respectively. Guwahati also reported record improvement in attendance rate with 81.14% and 84.60% for male and female students. Similarly Ahmedabad also reported 73% for boys and 81% for girls. In Bangalore average classroom attendance also improved from 71.5% in 2005-2006 to 89.4% in 2009-2010 academic year in TAPF primary & higher primary schools i.e. class I – VII, attendance for boys has improved from 70% in 2005 to 85% in 2009, similarly attendance for girls has improved from 72% to 93%. Through the mid-day meal programme, Akshaya Patra reaches out to young girls and women across India to provide them with not just the nutrition they need to lead a healthy life, but also with the foundation for a valuable, fulfilling life in future.
Q Which geographies are covered by Akshaya Patra and if there is any specific geography that the outreach is specifically looked at?
Akshaya Patra reaches out to 1,689,871 children in 26 locations across 11 states of India, providing them with freshly cooked meals on all school days. Currently, we are implementing the Mid-Day Meal Programme in 13,210 schools of the country, with plans to increase that number to hundreds more. In Andhra Pradesh, Akshaya Patra is present in Visakhapatnam, Kakinada and Vijayawada.
- In Assam it is present in Guwahati.
- In Chhattisgarh it is present in Bhilai.
- In Gujarat it is present in Ahmedabad, Vadodara & Surat.
- In Karnataka it is present in Bengaluru, Ballari, Hubballi, Mangaluru & Mysuru.
- In Odisha it is present in Bhubaneswar, Puri, Nayagarh & Rourkela.
- In Rajasthan it is present in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Nathwada & Baran.
- In Maharashtra it is present in Nagpur.
- In Tamil Nadu it is present in Chennai.
- In Telangana it is present in Hyderabad. In Uttar Pradesh it is present in Vrindavan & Lucknow.
Q What are the major challenges that Akshaya Patra faces in the implementation of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme?
Akshaya Patra does encounter a few headwinds while providing mid-day meals to over 1.65 million children, every school day. Since it deals with a perishable commodity like food, ensuring quality till the last mile is the biggest challenge that the organization faces. Second is logistics – ensuring that 13, 210 schools get their daily meals in that half an hour window is imperative. Third is obtaining necessary approvals for reducing cycle time for setting up of new kitchen facilities. Fourth is ensuring sustainability of the programme by leveraging our expertise in nutrition, food safety, hygiene, technology, innovation and through advocacy.
Q How does the personalised virtual fundraising campaign work on the Akshaya Patra App? Are there any such successful fundraising campaign that have concluded recently and what has been the outcome?
Nowadays, majority of donors are smartphone users. Hence it becomes extremely convenient for them to participate in online fundraising or create their personalised fundraising campaigns by using the Akshaya Patra App. Users on a regular basis can measure the performance of their campaigns. They can also share thesame with their friends & colleagues through apps like WhatsApp Messenger, Facebook and Twitter. Few successful fundraising campaigns that have concluded recently are:
- ‘Bhishaan and Rachel’s wedding donations’ campaign raised a total donation of Rs 3,77,357 which can feed 397 Akshaya Patra beneficiaries for a whole academic year (https://www. akshayapatra.org/recently-concludedcampaigns/bhishaan-and-rachelwedding-donations)
- ‘Running for 36 hours to feed underprivileged children’ campaign raised a total donation of Rs 1,24,350 which can feed 130 Akshaya Patra beneficiaries for a whole academic year (https://www.akshayapatra.org/ recently-concluded-campaigns/36- hours-run-to-feed-underprivilegedchildren)
- ‘Soham’s birthday fundraising’ campaign raised a total donation of 43,501 which can feed 45 Akshaya Patra beneficiaries for a whole academic year (https://www. akshayapatra.org/recently-concludedcampaigns/soham-s-birthdayfundraising)
Q Many Congratulations on winning the ICAI Award for Excellence in Financial Reporting for the year 2012- 2013? Accounting for Not-for-Profit is quite a task, especially with the changed FCRA rules, how do you accommodate the time and energy to excel in every sphere of life?
We, at Akshaya Patra, believe in absolute transparency in all our activities. In keeping with this principle we comply with the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and, to a large extent, with the Indian Accounting Standards issued by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India. Our financial accounts are open to scrutiny and this financial transparency is what gives the organisation the confidence and the success route to keep moving ahead. We also strive to ensure stringent measures are in place, to meet the highest standards of transparency, as we believe internal control is the key to good governance. In order to ensure the effectiveness of the internal controls, the organisation has appointed Chartered Accountant firms of repute, as Branch Auditors. The Branch Auditors submit the audited reports of their respective branches to the management periodically. These reports are then reviewed by the Audit Committee. We all know how transparency, especially for an NGO, is the key to trust and reliability. Akshaya Patra hence upholds absolute transparency in all its activities. The IFRS reporting which was adopted in 2008-09 has contributed substantially in building confidence amongst the stakeholders of the organisation. We also comply with the Indian Accounting Standards issued by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) and are up to date on accounting standards. At the end of each financial year an Annual Report with financial audits and statements is published and made available to the stakeholders
Q What is the next goal for Akshaya Patra in general and for you as the Chairman of Akshaya Patra, in particular?
Since inception we at Akshaya Patra have attempted to feed millions of children in India who have the keenness to learn and achieve, but not the resources. Providing quality food for these children is a need for a productive education experience in schools, as this will help Akshaya Patra create citizens with ability and good character. By feeding them that one wholesome meal a day, we strive to give them the motivation and nourishment they need to pursue education that will lead them to a respectable life infuture. It is our aspiration to feed 5 million children by 2020, and we are poised to soldier ahead come what may.
Q What compelled you to make a transition from studying from the top IIT of the country and a secured life and then leaving it all and entering the realm of devotion and helping the underprivileged?
I was in pursuit of the Absolute truth and in the quest of knowledge and the meaning of life. I was a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. I was studying physics, and at one point I thought I had the answers for all the questions of the Universe. But over time, a strange frustration began to overwhelm me. I realised that I could not find the answers to myriad disturbing questions; for science and technology have their limitations. Science only deals with what we perceive with the panch indriyas. It cannot explore or conceptualize the abstract, the countless truths that lie beyond the realm of what we can observe. This perception caused in me a crossover and I started reading philosophy. As my search for the eternal question – ‘who are we’ continued, I came across Bhaktivedanta Swami and all my questions, that science or western philosophy could not answer were found in the discourses of this great sage.
Q How can a common citizen be part of this endeavor and contribute in whatever little way, they can?
Akshaya Patra is not just a school meal programme. It is a social programme, a nation building effort that can positively impact many more underserved children with the collective efforts of the community. Akshaya Patra has always been proactive in seeking support from effective community players who are aligned with its philosophy of ‘unlimited food for education.’ Generous and conscientious individuals, who believe in empowering the underserved can associate with Akshaya Patra and employ it as a platform to usher positive changes in the lives of our beneficiaries. Individuals can make donations in both cash and kind.
They can also volunteer with us. There are several volunteering provisions available in our website www.akshayapatra.org for interested individuals to choose from.
Individuals who wish to make a difference in the lives of our beneficiaries can also fundraise with Akshaya Patra. Apart from the many fundraising options already available in the website, Akshaya Patra also gives individuals the opportunity to create their personalised fundraising campaigns. People can also support us online by sharing our latest news and updates on their social media handles.
To raise awareness, people can share the link of our website with their friends and followers. They can also embed an Akshaya Patra Public Service Announcement (PSA) on their own website.
Individuals can also choose to contribute to the Foundation’s cause by helping Akshaya Patra get as much community support as possible. They can do this by downloading Akshaya Patra posters, banners and other materials to print, hand out and display in one’s locality, to help get a word of our organisation out there.
Q Who are the major contributors and patrons of Akshaya Patra who have provided their relentless support over the years?
Akshaya Patra feels privileged and humbled to have received the support of several corporates and generous donors, over the last sixteen years. With their steadfast support we have grown strength to strength feeding over 1.65 million children across the country. A few of our major contributors are Infosys Foundation, Jamsetji Tata Trust, Cisco, Caterpillar Foundation and Bank of Tokyo to mention a notable few.
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