Hidden from the glitzy skyline of the glamorous Karachi is a cluster of bamboo huts and temporary homes that provide shelter to the city’s underprivileged. These invisible areas, the slums of Karachi, are rarely mentioned or talked about. Never have food delivery apps ever seen an order for a scrumptious burger or a home-cooked karahi and piping hot naan from these areas. The inhabitants of the city’s slums sleep every night in hopes of a better future!
One night, when the group was sleeping under the dewy light of stars, a grumbling stomach made a wish upon a star for a messiah who would deal with its profound emptiness. The wish reached the highest skies and travelled back to the earth in guise of the Robin Hood Army (RHA) – an initiative aimed at tackling the country’s hunger crisis.
In 2015, Sameer Beg set up this revolutionary initiative Robin Hood Army in Pakistan, which was inspired “by a Portuguese model where the surplus food is collected and distributed to those who go to sleep hungry”. Since its inception, the RHA has served more than eight million meals across the country. It started its operations from Karachi and slowly expanded its generosity and kindness to other cities (it has operations in Lahore, Islamabad, Hyderabad, Rawalpindi and Multan).
In a video shared by Beg with You!, a RHA team member shares that the group acts as a bridge between the persons/companies with surplus food and a deserving person who otherwise would have gone to sleep on an empty stomach. The team member shared that many restaurant owners were so overwhelmed by this act of kindness that instead of giving away their leftovers, they even offered to make fresh meals for the distribution drive. This way, the RHA ensures that no person goes to sleep hungry. In this regard, the RHA also joined hands with a famous bakery in Karachi. The bakery encourages customers to donate as little as Rs 100 to buy something for the homeless who desperately wait for some food.
What today seems like an inspirational story used to be a challenge in the initial days. When asked about the challenges that the initiative faced, Beg elucidates, “Well awareness was one of the biggest challenges. Initially, there was no concept of saving surplus food and routing it to those who need it.” Determined to bring a change in the country, the RHA continued preaching the message of change. It started approaching restaurants, caterers and marriage halls and highlighted the issue. It also succeeded in convincing vendors to save “whatever they could and serve it to the deserving”.
The Pakistani society is sharply divided into haves and have-nots. In the city’s posh areas where restaurants pop up almost every other month, the elite enjoy smoked salmon or foie gras and spend tens of thousands on a single meal. The groups of the excited teens or working people enjoying their reunion parties hardly look twice at the leftovers on their plates. This food left behind is often dumped into wastebins without any care. When the city’s rich sleep, the underprivileged come out on the streets in search of a morsel.
While the rich take antacids after a full meal and a brisk walk to digest the food, the poor spend hours in search for food in piles of garbage. According to the survey by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), 40 per cent households in Pakistan are facing moderate or severe food insecurity. The sight of children and the helpless people sitting on a roadside, waiting for someone to give them some food to eat, is, unfortunately, quite common in the country. One of the recent surveys suggest that Pakistan has a population of 20 million homeless people. While a majority sleep peacefully, a group of volunteers walk down on the dark streets to reach the people waiting for food. And while the RHA cannot serve each individual, it is doing everything in its capacity to reach as many people as it can and provide a stomach full of meal to the individuals.
In a video message that Beg recorded for a private event, he can be seen saying, “One-third of the food prepared is not consumed. One in eight children die of hunger.” These shocking statistics reveal that for a majority of Pakistanis, daily meals are a luxury. Beg believes that the country does need proper laws to ensure that no food is wasted. With the proper implementation of these laws, “we will be able to save tonnes of food that is wasted every year”.
The RHA is a zero-fund organisation. For some, the fact that an initiative has to be run without sufficient financial resources invites some form of scepticism. But the RHA has been breaking all the shackles and emerging as one of the leading volunteer groups working tirelessly to bring the best in humanity. Talking about the RHA’s wide audience, Beg expresses, “We have a wide range of audience who we cater to. These could be people living in slums or homeless out on the streets. We cater to children at orphanages and residents of the old age home. We also share food with night shelters, helping them keep homeless citizens safe.”
The RHA has groups each of which is responsible for surveying a particular area. This technique helps them to better understand the level of help that the people need. “We have a scout team that visits different areas, identifies locations where people are living in terrible conditions and would need assistance.”
Everything was going pretty well until the country was hit by the deadly coronavirus. Amid rising cases, the government had to take harsh decisions and it imposed a countrywide lockdown. The sudden yet necessary closure of businesses meant that the little hope that people had was also taken away. In Pakistan, the Covid-19 pandemic has had devastating effects. Loss of jobs and rising inflation resulted in widespread food insecurity. The Robin Hood Army is well aware of the fact that the pandemic-induced economic crunch means that there is even a higher number of people who would need assistance.
“Since the Covid-19 pandemic,” Beg tells, “We have also catered to people in interior Sindh and Balochistan with dry ration and warm clothes/blankets. These people either were affected by the pandemic or had lost their land, cattle or other belongings in the 2020 monsoon floods.”
The organisation has maintained that Pakistan is a food surplus country. The main problem that needs to be dealt with is the poor’s inaccessibility to food. What was, and still is, needed in the country is a bridge that reaches directly to the poor. The Robin Hood Army used social media sites to spread its message among the people. Ever since its inception, it rigorously works towards making some noise on social media to let people know about what it has been doing. So far, it has received a good response with a lot of people and restaurant owners reaching out to the organisation for the safe use of the leftovers and surplus food.
For the people, Sameer Beg has the following message, “We need your support. Come out support Robin Hood Army; eliminate food waste and eliminate hunger” (sic). The army of volunteers who selflessly work to provide food to the people have turned six this year. While discussing the organisation’s long-term plans, Sameer says that they are looking forward to “getting accustomed to this pandemic and the extra famine it has caused thus far to the under privileged.” He adds that the RHA’s “main goal which is also a long-term goal is to eliminate food waste and hunger. We are planning to expand to as many cities as possible across Pakistan.”
And this expansion will undoubtedly be beneficial for hundreds of thousands of people who are reliant on the RHA’s help. However, it is also the prime responsibility of the government to take effective measures to eliminate hunger from the country. It is shocking to see the existing disparities in our society. While one segment of people is forced to starve for days, the other group is happy splurging on expensive meals. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, the hunger crisis in the country has blown out of proportion. Many families, who otherwise were able to afford at least a day’s meal, are now out of food.
The country, undoubtedly, has many welfare groups and organisations that are working tirelessly to ensure that people don’t go to bed hungry. The incumbent government, too, has taken a few initiatives to deal with the hunger crisis. But all of these steps taken so far are nothing more than ‘quick fixes’ carried out to ignore the larger problem.
Our increasingly unequal society desperately needs a well-thought-out plan that can pull the people out of the hunger and poverty crises. The country needs a concrete and large-scale plan that ensures that people don’t go to bed hungry. We need groups like the RHA as helping hands. But it will be a little unfair to expect from these groups to single-handedly – and with zero funds – carry the burden of eradicating the hunger crisis.
Robin Hood Army Pakistan