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New railway caterers: Women serving local cuisine to passengers at Sawantwadi

Customer reviews for the chefs have been excellent: Malvani cuisine on offer is mouth-watering.

Written by Neha Kulkarni | Mumbai |
December 14, 2016 2:36:05 am
mumbai, mumbai railways, e catering, malvani cuisine, women caterers, women serving, sawantwadi, NABARD, indian express news, mumbai news, india news Women of the Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal are learning the rules of modern-day catering with transactions done through digital medium.

HESITATING at first, Aarti Kapadi (31) rolls her fingers over the mouse, trying to select a date for a payment order, under the watchful eye of her kitchen manager.

“Sorry, mee pahilyanda Internet waparat ahe (I am using the Internet for the first time),” Aarti says, grinning. “We have always seen payments made with cash for all orders. This is the first time I’m seeing food options, payments and all other things together on a page. But I’m sure I’ll learn to operate it myself.”

Aarti is one of 30 women who belong to self-help group, Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal, in Konkan’s Sawantwadi district. The women are learning the rules of modern-day catering with transactions done through a digital medium.

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What makes their business unique is that these women are serving over one lakh passengers of long-distance trains halting at Sawantwadi station. And the reviews by customers have been excellent: The Malvani cuisine on offer is mouth-watering.

In a first of a kind initiative by the Indian Railways, aluwadis, puran polis, modaks, chicken sukka and solakadi prepared by experienced home chefs in the Konkan region will be served to rail passengers who want to try the local cuisine.

The project is a part of an Income Livelihood Entrepreneurship Development (ILDP) initiative by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) where women belonging to lower-income groups are trained by the Lupin Human Welfare and Research Foundation to become catering entrepreneurs.

What excites them is this opportunity that lets nationwide commuters taste the food prepared by them, which was only reserved for their family members or locals in their region till now. After receiving training on catering, safety techniques and the importance of hygiene, the kitchen — a five-minute walk from Sawantwadi station — was inaugurated on December 3 by Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu.

“The women – mostly from the regional belt around Sawantwadi station – were a side-help for their husbands in their farms or were just homemakers. The project offers them a permanent vocation, which allows them to use their cooking skills and make a living for themselves. The partnership with the railways will give them a wider scope and better publicity for their food,” said Yogesh Prabhu, regional head for Lupin, Sawantwadi. The IRCTC website allows commuters to select their food preference while booking their ticket.

This can either be done for a planned trip or on an immediate basis at least two hours before their halt at Sawantwadi station.

“When we received our first order on December 7, we had almost packed for the day. After having received no orders even after inauguration, we were really disappointed. We utilised our finest knowledge in preparing our first major order and equally waited for the response from the passenger. We felt proud when he loved the spicy chicken dish,” said Neetali Shirodkar, one of the women.

While the women claim to be great cooks, mass catering of this sort is helping them re-learn some of the basic tricks of food-making, which starts with using the right proportion. From making the dish look presentable to its perfect packing, they believe they are taking all the lessons back home.

“Our folks back home demand the same treatment to food the way we prepare here. They say the training has made our food tastier. We even like to work in this kitchen as it is more spacious and it is a shared responsibility,” said Sanjana Gadekar.

However, the eight hours of work at the kitchen is an investment to earn savings for their children, they said. For them, it is about earning a penny on their own than ask for the same to their husbands.

“Instead of me asking my husband for money, I will be in a position to support my house. My children can attain higher education and a better future if I save now,” Neetali added.

Their earnings form a percentage share from every food order sold by them. In the initial days till the project is settled, the mandal is fending off their travel allowances and helping them with a share of Rs 100 each for each day of their work.

“We have only kept five women out of the 30 at work in the kitchen, considering the pace of orders in the beginning is slower. These five stay closer to the station and are comparatively faster in preparing food. We are trying to promote the food deliveries of the rest at marriage functions and other catering orders,” said Shushruti Adekar, kitchen manager.

What remains a disadvantage for growth is the cost of food, which is almost double in comparison to the pantry food availed from IRCTC.

Better quality ingredients and a 12 per cent surcharge to be paid to the railways is what increases their prices. “Though the cost at present is higher than that served by IRCTC, better quality will serve as an advantage. A little loss in the beginning will have to be borne to establish the business. If commuters want better food they will have to pay the price,” Prabhu added.

“The project is giving a platform to their works in a structured way in comparison to the distributed form it was in till now. It will take them time to learn the essentials of selling business and understand how market operates and what financial inclusion is. The initiative is not about earning money but empowering them to live independently,” said Rajashree Manakame, district development manager, NABARD.

The challenge is to take this project from a local scale to a mega level. For this, authorities have planned to set up canteens in government offices in the region, which can sell their local food, employ them at railway pantries, promote their products on highways and brand their products in a bigger way.

After the Sawantwadi terminus is ready by next year, more orders in a day could be expected. “From being a mere support to their families, these women will engage in marketing of their products and handle pressure of a business. It puts them in a different league altogether. Now, the platform is ready and it depends on their efforts to retain the same quality in food for the model to sustain,” said Rajendra Kulkarni, General Manager, NABARD, Maharashtra.

Authorities are planing to re-model this initiative at Kudal station, which will also see some other women from SHG groups cater Malvani cuisine to rail commuters. “If I can serve laddoos to Suresh Prabhu and receive appreciation for the same, I am sure commuters will also enjoy them,” said a confident Rohini Mistri.
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