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October 11, 2019

Will the langar erase hunger?


October 11, 2019

PM Imran Khan launches Ehsaas Langar Scheme

A few years ago, I was travelling in the Thar region for work. After an hours-long car ride, our destination was still another few hours away.

But as we drove through another district, I saw a decrepit food stall or ‘khokha’ more precarious looking than most I have seen anywhere. It had a sign outside that said: “Feed 10 people for Rs100.” Two old men were squatting outside the food stall, apparently waiting in line for someone to donate them a meal. They were so malnourished that I could see their skin stretched over their bones.

More: Soup kitchen to be expanded across the country, says PM

That is one picture of what the bottom of the hunger pyramid in Pakistan looks like to me. I can remember that even as far back as in 2013, I was shaken by the realization that: a) people are compelled to survive on edible food for Rs10; and b) that even at Rs10 for a meal, some people are still dependent on charity.

The International Food Policy Research Institute maintains the Global Hunger Index. In 2017, Pakistan was ranked at 106 out of 119 countries, 14th from the bottom, just beating Afghanistan. Economists may categorize chronic hunger as a symptom of a deeper problem, but that does not change the fact that it demands immediate, urgent addressal. Political speeches about initiatives to teach the proverbial hungry man how to fish rather than giving him fish must wait until after he gets a meal in his belly. As someone who has never been in that man’s shoes, far be it from me to criticize the government’s recent decision to establish 112 soup kitchens or ‘langar khaanay’ across seven major cities (Islamabad, Karachi, Hyderabad, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Quetta, and Peshawar), which will each serve about 600 meals, twice a day when fully functional.

While I find nothing wrong with strengthening the social safety net for society’s most vulnerable, I can see plenty wrong with the way this programme seems to be implemented.

First of all, the langar scheme appears to be a standalone initiative that is not integrated with any other poverty alleviation interventions. For example, in some states in the US, recipients of unemployment benefits must demonstrate that they are actively looking for jobs to continue to qualify for the programme.

Another example is the US Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). It provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, healthcare referrals, and nutrition education for low-income women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. To help people transition out of the program, beneficiaries are required to meet and consult with a nutritionist who monitors their health and tracks their progress.

If a soup kitchen is giving a man a fish to address the immediate need of his hunger, the component that teaches a beneficiary how to fish so he may exit the programme and make space for someone else in need of assistance is missing. Is the langar programme integrated with other poverty alleviation programmes – for eg small-scale poultry farming, kitchen gardening, job/ vocational skills training, family planning, etc? Initial reporting does not seem to indicate so.

Second, the prime minister’s speech at the launch ceremony in Islamabad betrays the political desperation that motivated its haphazard launch. He lamented the recently mounting public pressure on his government after only one year to deliver solutions for problems that have been festering for more than 70 years. The launch of the langar scheme under the umbrella of the Ehsaas programme appears to be in reaction to that pressure.

Third, by the end of next year, the langar scheme will serve at most 0.13 million people daily (assuming everyone gets served only one meal a day) across seven cities with a sum total population of 26 million souls. In a country inhabited by more than 200 million, those cities cover barely 13 percent of the population, and the 0.13 million beneficiaries are little more than 0.06 percent of the total population. How that will help the hungry in rural areas and other cities is anyone’s guess. Simply put, the programme’s capacity is inadequate, making for a drop in an ocean.

How will langar khaanas / soup kitchens in Karachi help people like the ones I saw in Mithi, Thar? I am sure there is hunger in the cities too, but things seem to be a lot worse in remote areas. Has anyone bothered to create a ‘hunger map’ of Pakistan? Do we know where the greatest need / demand for such langar khaanas is? Have these langar khaanas been dropped into locations that were the most convenient, or are they operating where the need is greatest? From the reporting so far, it does not seem clear at all that anyone bothered to go through this exercise.

Fourth, it is unclear how much of the funds allocated to the langar scheme will be spent on building infrastructure dedicated to the programme. In the West, soup kitchens that serve the poor often take advantage of the existing infrastructure of churches, places of worship and community centres. While this land of the pure may be endowed with little else, it has mosques to spare.

If mosques can serve as community centres offering services to men, women and children in Western countries, why did none of the well-travelled and well-qualified people designing and executing the government’s Ehsaas programme not consider importing this model? The lack of deliberation that has been put into its implementation is again betrayed by not leveraging all the available infrastructure in the form of mosques across the country.

Finally, the langar scheme offers a ready opportunity to survey and talk to 1.2 million of the most vulnerable people in society on a regular basis. This gives us the opportunity to ask them a few questions and understand what drove them to sign up for the langar, and what they need to become self-sufficient and independent again. Such simple surveys will go a long way towards understanding the root causes of chronic malnutrition.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that I do not fault the government for indulging in photo-ops and scoring political points with voters. That is, after all, what politicians do. Some people have criticized the langar scheme for its lack of sustainability. If this scheme is to address the people at the very bottom of the hunger pyramid, then I am less concerned about sustainability.

For the poorest in our society, even a charge of Rs5 per meal may be too much to pay. Their need will have to be fulfilled by philanthropy, which leaves little room for sustainability. However, the simplicity of this programme leaves me with several reservations I explained above about how much thought the technical experts that designed it have put into it.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Email: [email protected]