Sunday, December 6, 2015

Making a difference or staying indifferent?

I complete 10 months at Zomato in 10 days' time. And i've never been prouder of this company. It's one thing to be cool (which Zomato is by default, particularly on social media) but quite another to step up to a given situation. As you all know, Chennai was reeling (the conditions are comparatively better now) under intense rain last week. So what Zomato decided to do was create something called Chennai Flood Relief which encourages active participation from public. What it meant was, for every meal you buy for the affected people in Chennai, Zomato will buy one too. This was launched on the afternoon of December 2. The initial response turned out to be of mixed nature. Some people were more than happy to contribute while some were at their usual skeptical best. According to the latter, this was a gimmick by the company to grab eyeballs.

The only difference was it wasn't that.

On the contrary, it was a genuine effort to take charity to the next level. Yes, Zomato could have easily made donations to the relief funds but that wouldn't have aroused the interest or provoked awareness about what's going on in the southernmost metropolitan city of India. Besides, where do you get a meal for Rs50 nowadays? Of course, the subsidized cost we are talking about here is shouldered by Zomato for the most part. After all, it doesn't own a single restaurant and can't obviously expect the same charitable concerns from those who have agreed to cook food for the ones in need. But that's the problem with social media. People jump to conclusion because everybody wants to be the messiah who sees things through even with their eyes tight shut. However, by December 3, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The detractors were still squeaking their cynical songs but the general public at large continued to buy food packets in tens and hundreds and in some cases, thousands, for the affected souls in Chennai. Within 24 hours, on the afternoon of December 3, the donation window had to be paused. The reason was simple: the company was getting overwhelming amount of orders for Chennai. The idea was to ensure that the distribution of food packets keeps up with the orders made.

Zomato could have continued accepting orders but it didn't.

On the other hand, it scaled up on the distribution of food packets by engaging our teams in Bangalore and Chennai, Robin Hood Army volunteers, several NGOs in Chennai and Coimbatore and when things got really rough, even NDRF. But despite these measures, media picked up the misleading signals (as they usually do in our country) for the heck of it. Mint's headline did more than enough for this cause. It sounded like we weren't able to handle what we started. Instead of appreciating our integrity in not going overboard with orders, they decided to highlight something else. Think about it. Zomato could have continued to keep the donation window open but we didn't. What stopped it from milking money from the public in the name of grief/relief? I'll answer that. The word is called sincerity. When you want to make a difference, you try your level best on planning that the actions undertaken lead to desirable results. And you just do that by getting people in place and working against all kinds of obstacles.

Speaking of which, people sitting in their comfortable homes have no fucking idea how difficult things were on the ground in Chennai—if you could see it, that is. The waterlogged streets (extensive gutters?) were just one of the several problems we faced. Failing phone/data networks was another such scoundrel. The amount of frustration you feel when you aren't able to connect in order to relay crucial information is beyond words. Some kitchens that were supposed to cook food were flooded overnight, making us run around to reach out for other options. The circumstances could turn shitty within seconds (and they did in some cases) of downpour but our teams managed to keep their hopes high. They were the real heroes and are because they are STILL at work distributing thousands of food packets and other supplies. Reaching out to as many people as they can, not discriminating between anyone. Hands outstretched for food is never a pleasant sight but these are moments when you don't care much about etiquettes. I asked one of our point-of-contacts to send me pics and his reply was eye-opening: "We've got bigger issues here :) ...but we'll send whenever we can."

And they did. 

On the night of December 4, we reopened the donation window again. Moreover, this time around, we announced that Zomato didn't have the financial agility to match the meal-for-a-meal arithmetic. The public would have to do on their own, if they wish to. The cost per meal continued to remain low at Rs50 per food packet. As expected, people didn't care whether the company donated or not. Within the next three hours, 35000 meals were donated, averaging 600 every minute.

If you think, it was all rosy, you're mistaken.

Like i said, it always feels nicer to sit on a comfortable sofa and spew rubbish than get up and do some research. Something at least one journalist at Scroll would agree with. He wrote an article which is more of a theory than a story. According to him, we stopped the donation window on Dec 3rd. Mind you, stopped, not paused. To him, it was a PR stunt (What isn't a PR stunt in the big bad world of internet today? Isn't a journalist taking a byline for his article a PR stunt too?) to get people to loosen their pockets and then run away with the moolah. He didn't care to check whether the window was reopened or not and if yes, why was it closed in the first place. No. None of that. Just assuming because that's so much easier to do. I mean, i've been a journalist for 3.5 years and i've had my share of inaccurate reportage but never once did i poke my finger into a crisis that was bigger than my petty assumptions. We are talking about thousands of people stranded and foodless and whatnot. And here we're having journos lazy enough to not understand (not even try, in fact) what is going on out there. Everybody wants to be a hero nowadays. Very few want to be a part of something that might bring about a change for better. And those who actually make a difference don't care about having heavy opinion inside their skulls. They just quietly contribute and hope something good comes out of it.

If there is one thing that Chennai floods has taught me for posterity, it's the fact that there will always be more good-hearted people on this planet than the not-so-good-hearted ones. The doubting Thomases will continue to waste time while others will push the cart of humanity. That's what keeps this world spinning. Also, noble intention and great work travel far together. 

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