Kolkata to Mumbai: Cafés give acid attack victims, disabled a chance in life
Finding a way to make a difference is what drove many of the founders to set up these outfits across India.Updated: Jun 24, 2018 10:03 IST
When they say the cakes are life-changing in Kansabel, they aren’t kidding. The sole bakery in this village in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh, is run by survivors of human trafficking. Elsewhere, food is helping the mentally challenged, the recently homeless, the speech and hearing impaired, and acid attack survivors reach out, be seen, earn a living and operate within the mainstream.
Repeat patronage and a growing number of outlets prove the formula is working at outfits such as Mirchi & Mime, Mumbai, where all servers are speech and hearing impaired; Crust & Core, Kolkata, manned by the rescued homeless and mentally challenged; the Mitti Cafés in Karnataka that employ only the mentally and physically challenged; and Beti Zindabad in Chhattisgarh.
“The operative word here is sustenance. Real rehabilitation happens when gainful employment comes with respect and sustenance,” says Ranjana Kumari, social activist and director of the non-profit organisation, Centre for Social Research, Delhi.
When meaningful work is combined with fair wages and good working conditions, you have a sustainable formula that works, Kumari adds. “It also makes survivor stories a positive example — for other survivors, and for those who want to help and don’t know how.”
Finding a way to make a difference is what drove many of the founders to set up the cafés. Former journalists Ashish Shukla, 27 and Alok Dixit, 30, for instance, had started a campaign called Stop Acid Attacks in 2013. Meeting survivors, they realised that while it was important to talk about the crime, and prevention, there wasn’t enough being done to help the women regain control of their lives.
“We wanted a café because our idea was to offer not just sympathy but stability, to build confidence and work towards social re-acceptance,” Shukla says.
Delicious food also seemed like a good approach to Sarbani Das Roy, co-founder of Crust & Core. “The café is a space where two worlds can meet in an informal atmosphere and where the perceived chasm between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ can get a chance to dissolve,” she says.
The appeal works both ways. “When I first met the trafficking survivors to talk about rehabilitation in a way that would make them happy, I realised that many were very interested in cooking,” says Priyanka Shukla, 35, an IAS officer and Collector of Jashpur. “So I thought, why not help them open a bakery. Jashpur has a large Christian population, and there is demand for cakes, cookies and muffins. They had a ready market.”
Market conditions have been good for the cafés with a cause, across the country. Sheroes’ Hangout now has outlets in Agra and Lucknow, employing 20 acid attack survivors. The second was set up with the help of the UP government. Mirchi & Mime opened a pub version, Madeira & Mime, in 2016 and the two outfits employ a total of 55 specially abled servers.
The key, says co-founder Prashant Issar, is to make sure standards are high. “As with any restaurant, we serve great food first. We just happen to employ people who can’t hear or speak. People may come for the experience, but they come back for the food, and the great service,” he adds.
In Kolkata, Crust & Core is getting funding from four philanthropic foundations. And help is pouring in for Mitti Café, which has six outlets across Hubli in less than a year, manned by a total of 36 mentally and physically challenged people.
“I had experience in the restaurant sector but little capital. I just knew I wanted to create something that speaks of inclusivity and tolerance,” says founder Alina Alam, 25. The first Mitti Café was in a tin shed at a local college, a space donated by a philanthropic organisation called the Deshpande Foundation. “I cleaned it up and started the café with Rs 50,000 crowdfunded from family and friends, and a lot of second-hand, third-hand and borrowed equipment.”
There are now nine more cafés in works, thanks to a grant from a venture philanthropic fund.
“This is a quality café that is also offering employment to people who previously had no access to a fair opportunity,” says Sanjana Jayadev, general manager of Social Venture Partners. “With their quality food and service, they have proved that output is never compromised. This is a novel model with a huge potential to be structured, institutionalised and shared.”
Employees describe the cafés as a chance to start over, support their families and reclaim their lives.
“When I was in Delhi, working from early morning to late at night with all my earnings going to the agent who took me from Chhattisgarh, I never imagined I would be back with my parents,” says Rekha*, 23, who works at Beti Zindabad. When she was rescued by the police, she didn’t know what awaited her either.
“Then I heard about this job. Twenty of us were trained and we even went to Pune to learn how to bake. That was so much fun,” Rekha says. “Today, when people taste the cakes and appreciate them, I feel life is good.”
The bakery did bumper business at Christmas. “But the best news was when we got a letter from the President’s office saying we had won a Nari Shakti Award,” says Pallavi*, 22, another employee. “I went to Delhi to collect it, and that was like a dream come true.”
At Mirchi & Mime, one employee bought furniture for his house last Diwali; another bought a smartphone for her mother, who is also hearing and speech impaired, so she can communicate via video calls.
“When my father fell ill and my family wanted to return to our village. I told them I can take care of them because I have a job now,” signs Ritesh*, 34, another server.
Ritu Saini, 22, one of the first employees at Sheroes’ Hangout, speaks of her initial struggles with interacting with strangers. “When I was attacked in 2012, it felt like my life had ended,” she says. “Getting over how you look, speaking to people, was difficult. But the fact that I got this job, that life could move on, gave me courage.”
Customers at Mirchi & Mime will tell you the menu is extensive, the food, delicious, and ordering without words is far easier than you would think. A matrix in the menu tells you how to sign for your dish.
“I feel the service is a step above average because the instructions are very clear and the servers are very focused,” says Rajan Khorana, 45, an entrepreneur.
“The menu is good. I went to the café for the first time because of the food. I didn’t know about the employees. I go back for the food too.”
At Crust & Core, mentally challenged women rescued from the streets were trained for 10 months in baking, cooking, running a kitchen — and dealing with strangers as well as their own and each others’ symptoms.
Women who are still withdrawn, have low energy levels or clinical mental health conditions work in the kitchens, layering cakes and pastries, making shells of tarts and quiches. Those with less severe symptoms clean, cook, wait tables.
A key selling point here, customers say, is the calm and cosy ambience.
“I’ve been there twice, first alone and then with my friends. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well-decorated it is. I plan to go back with my laptop and study there,” says Snehal Saraf, 22, a post- graduate student. “The servers did make small mistakes but they overcame such hurdles to work at this café, and that’s amazing to me.”
(* Names changed on request)