For an average urban consumer, scores of apps for doorstep food and grocery delivery services fight for screen space on his or her smartphone. But, even in 2019, thousands of villagers in India have to walk miles to access the basic minimum.
Similarly, most of the grocery products found in the modular kitchens of Tier-1 cities are mass-produced by large-scale corporate firms, allowing little profit for the farmer toiling hard in sun and rain.
While most choose to be oblivious towards the struggles of the village farmers and their families, one man from Andhra Pradesh was iron-willed to be an extra pillar of support.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
While working in England as a software engineer, Lova Raju Katari from Rajahmundry used to reflect upon a piece of news his father had read out to him in childhood – how a farmer family perished to death unable to bear their debt burden. “As a child, it struck me how the family desperately wanted to provide a decent education to their son but failed. From that day, I always thought of doing something for such farmer families which cannot support their children’s education,” shares Lova Raju, in a heartfelt conversation with Efforts For Good.
He is the founder of Village Dukaan – which delivers products from farmers’ homes to city inhabitants, without the involvement of any middleman, thus ensuring that a substantial profit goes to the farmers.
Farmer Suicides Deeply Affected Lova Raju
During 2011-12, a large number of farmer suicides became a terrifying reality in India, especially in Lova Raju’s home state Andhra Pradesh. At that time, Lova Raju was at the prime of his career in England. However, this news unsettled him deeply. Previously, he had tried to launch an initiative for educating underprivileged children in Rajahmundry and adjoining villages. But, to his disappointment, he failed to find any student who was truly keen on pursuing his education.
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“So, I thought if I can somehow help the families earn a decent income, they would automatically ensure that their children avail proper schooling,” shares Lova Raju. So, in 2012, Lova Raju returned to India and started exploring the villages, trying to get a first-hand idea about the farmers’ plight.
Understanding The Deep-Rooted Distress Of Indian Farmers
“I would not directly go and talk to them. Rather I would be on my way and observe their daily lives from a distance. I found that the landless farmers were the most distressed. The landowners lease off their plots to these farmers and collect a major portion of the produce after the harvest. As a result, the farmers were left with little to run their families,” he recalls.
Lova Raju spent around three years in surveying and reflecting upon the condition of the farmers in Andhra Pradesh. He brainstormed day and night to figure out a feasible way to help them. “That’s how Village Dukaan came into being,” he narrates.
The story behind Village Dukaan’s name will give readers an idea of how passionate Lova Raju is about his initiative.
He shares, “The first name was Village Shoppers. But, it lacked the emotional connection that I wanted to foster with the people. So, I zeroed in on ‘Village Dukaan’. There have been days when I would practise saying the name out loud in my room, for hours at a stretch. After a point, I would feel a deep connection with the name. That’s when I knew it was perfect.”
Eliminating The Middleman From The Product Chain
Lova Raju’s main target was to eliminate the middleman from the marketing chain, thus channelising the major portion of the profit to the farmers. At first, he got recruited a student to work for him on weekends.
Sagar was a student of 11th standard back then, who wanted to fund his own education through the weekend job. He would cycle around villages, going door to door and identifying grains, groceries and homemade food products which can feature on the e-shelves of Village Dukaan. As per Lova Raju’s instruction, he would also pitch the idea of the shop to the uninitiated farmers.
At the same time, he roped in potential customers from Rajahmundry who expressed their eagerness to be a part of this ‘desi’ doorstep delivery services.
Gathering all the information from Sagar, Lova Raju would write down all the details on the four walls of his bedroom in London, spending hours on connecting the dots to a beautiful future.
Nobody Believed In Lova Raju’s Idea
“They said my idea was a sure shot failure. They brushed off my appeals and advised me to stall my initiative before I run into losses,” Lova Raju speaks about the investors who, one after another, turned down his business idea.
He thus started fundraising – approaching his friends in India as well as in the UK. Some of these friends were the same ones who had once helped him to buy his first ticket to London.
Despite Lova Raju’s honest confession that it would take him years to repay them, his well-wishers chipped in graciously.
The Days Of Struggle
In June 2016, Lova Raju sent his wife back to his hometown to start the on-ground work on his behalf, while he worked on developing the Village Dukaan website.
“At that time, I would wake up at 4 AM to start working, then head to the office at 8 AM, and resumed the website work late at night. For two long years, I knew no holidays, vacations or even weekends,” he remembers.
The work before the final launch was slow, painstaking and unquestionably hard. So much so that his friends started losing faith in him. The stress, the sleepless nights and the hard work led Lova Raju to suffer from a prolonged phase of severe illness. He continued his work even from bed. Finally, all his efforts came round when Village Dukaan was officially launched in May 2018.
We started with 30 products. Within two months the number increased to 700. In six months, Village Dukaan expanded beyond expectations and Lova Raju had to recruit a team of full-timers, starting with his first employee – Sagar. Aside from Rajahmundry, Village Dukaan is now delivering to Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru as well.
Village Dukaan’s Secret To Success
Village Dukaan maintains a very unique and transparent way of operations. Their eight delivery personnel deliver rice, pulses, grains, honey as well as homemade food products like pickles, sweets, jams, jellies, chutneys etc.
Traditional delicacies from Andhra kitchens and lost recipes from grandmother’s cookbooks are the speciality of Village Dukaan. Sustainable packaging in traditional clay pots or leaf packages is another striking characteristic for Village Dukaan.
Explaining their working mechanism, Lova Raju cited the example of a paddy farmer they recently welcomed to the network. He quoted to sell his 2019 winter harvest of rice at Rs 1400 for 70 kgs. Village Dukaan offered him Rs 1700 for the same quantity. With the extra Rs 300, the farmer has been instructed to mill the husked paddy grains into the rice. The rice is available for pre-order now on their website.
The most interesting feature about Village Dukaan is that Lova Raju publicly shares both positive and negative feedback of a product. For him, quality is the utmost priority.
“I didn’t start this enterprise to make money or impress others. I am accountable for my products to the customers. So, if a product is below-the-par, I have to convey the same to the producer/farmer. That way, they will also learn to practice honest business,” his words express his unflinching integrity.
A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.
My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.
About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss.
My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.
However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.
Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.
As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.
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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed.
This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.
What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation.
Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.
Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds.
Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma?
First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.
Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB?
The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment.
Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.
A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.