When the management of Tata Memorial Centre asked their employees' spouses to work, it met with a firm NO. They would, the fiery women said, rather stay at home than do an adhoc job: Rolling chapattis for cancer patients battling for life at the premier hospital. They were quite happy to be able to have time on their hands and gossip all afternoon.
But things changed when 30 of the 300 decided to give it a shot on grounds that it would give them pocket money to catch a movie or buy an extra sari. They pooled in Rs 100 each to buy wheat flour, gas stoves and some utensils. Their target: 500 chapattis per day.
Three years later, the "just like that" initiative has been christened Tata Annapurna Mahila Udyog Kendra (TAMUK). The "staff strength" has diminished by 4 but everything else is looking up: The Rs 85 per month wage has increased to Rs 2500, the number of chapattis from 500 to 5,000 per day and from the "only chapattis" USP, it is also idlis, dosas and a thali. From 80p per chapattis, they now charge a rupee and 10p.
From being a support service, they are also selling food from across the counter. Even the customer profile has changed: from ailing patients and their relatives to doctors and nurses who order regularly. Chief Administrative Officer, Ambuvani is no exception. He told HT: "I eat the same food."
From a two-meal service - lunch and dinner to be precise - work now is almost round-the-clock beginning with breakfast for 30 nurses. Add to this the counter sale that begins at 8 am with 1,000 chapattis ready to be sold. Two more lots, double the quantity, are transported during the day by a special bus shuttle service between TAMUK's operation unit in Mulund and the Tata Memorial hospital.
Between them, the women now make Rs 1.25 lakh per month. What's more the "pocket money" has now been converted to bank accounts: recurring and individual PPF accounts.
And there's more: TAMUK now has others bidding for them. Seeing its success rate and the kudos it has earned, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has approached them to set up shop for their employees. Ditto a private caterer who is convinced that his business would multiply with TAMUK on board.
But TAMUK's Lakshmi aunty has already thrown up her hands. At 60, she does more than a 20-year-old can.
She is up at the crack of dawn and before others file in, she has prepared the dough, chopped the vegetables and set things in order. Expansion, she says, is a tough call: "It is possible only if more people join us."
Till that happens — if it does — TAMUK can cope with this much and no more. However, there are happy exceptions during festivals when they entertain outsiders and churn out sweets to die for.
But this is not about chapattis or food. Neither is it about money alone. It is, as TAMUK chief Surekha Satpal says, about empowerment. It is about the sense of being on their own, particularly in set-ups where husbands are employees: "Even at home tensions are less and there is a zero fight situation," Surekha says.
Radha and Savitri do not trudge 15 km every day without reason. TAMUK has helped change things for the better. If it is a mission for Sunanda Mohite, it has helped Radha overcome depression.
The group ensures there are enough stress relievers: A picnic as often as possible, for instance, is a must as well as "time off" to discuss and resolve domestic issues.