As food costs rise, more and more food philanthropists have come forward to offer free meals to deserving people
Every day, from 12 noon to 2pm, traffic slows on MM Alam Road (Extension), facing Sherpao Bridge in the Gulberg area. Cycles and the rush of people along the road hinder the traffic, but without causing a traffic jam. The motorists of Lahore are familiar with traffic congestion during afternoon hours when parents rush to schools to pick up their children. This spot, however, is not a posh school locality. Passers-by notice a long queue of people waiting for their turn to get a nice meal.
“Yes, it’s a nice meal – two rotis and daal gosht – all free of cost,” says a man wearing the navy blue uniform of a security guard, who got the meal after waiting for 10 minutes in the queue. He does not want to disclose his name as he does not want his family to know about this. The guard rushes to sit on mats placed on the footpath to eat his meal. The footpath is already occupied by a dozen people, busy chatting and eating their lunch. The single-menu meal is being distributed by a man, who has brought four degs of daal gosht in a pick-up.
He refuses to talk to me.
On my insistence, he agrees to talk on the condition of anonymity for himself and the family funding the meal.
He says he is only doing his job to pick the meal from a warehouse near Data Darbar, the patron saint of the city, and distribute it here three times a day.
Three times a day?
“Yes, breakfast from 6am to 7am, lunch, 12pm to 2pm and supper from 6pm to 8pm.”
How many days a month, do you feed the people?
“It’s round the year,” he smiles. “No holiday even for Eid.”
He says normally the charity, run by a philanthropist family, feeds 1,200 people a day – 400 per shift. The menu, more or less, remains the same; sometimes it is channa daal, and sometime daal gosht. Those being fed are mostly those who regularly come to the langar.
This is not the only food philanthropy spot in the Gulberg area. If one moves on or looks around, they will find over a dozen such facilities in the area, which house private residents, commercial buildings and industries.
Lufthansa Cargo office operates in a commercial building in the Gulberg area near Sherpao Bridge.
Every Thursday, a few people from the company dish out 30 degs of rice to those who want to have it.
“I may not be able to tell whether it’s a company or privately-funded philanthropy,” says Anwar Masih, an official of the company. He says they have been doing food philanthropy for quite some time, but increased the number of degs during Covid, at a time when the company was almost shut. Long but orderly queues indicate that more people are in need of food these days and that most of them are feeling the squeeze.
People find it harder to prepare meals as gas, power and grocery prices rise. Most of our food expenses have risen by 10 percent to 30 percent since last year. In some cases, people are spending twice as much for the same goods.
Sughra, a domestic help, in Gulberg II houses, waits for her turn to get a meal distributed in front of the house of an industrialist family on Guru Mangat Road. She says the family has been distributing food every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for 10 years, but she joined the queue for the first time last year.
Before that, she would buy her own grocery to prepare food for her and her three children.
“Now, the rising grocery prices have rendered me unable to buy enough food to fill the kitchen,” she says.
“If I do not take these meals from this philanthropist, my children will go to bed hungry or with insufficient supper.”
The philanthropist, says the man in charge of food arrangements, distributes food three days here and another three days in the Sundar Industrial Estate.
Sughra says whatever she saves through ‘free-meals’ she has to spend on other stuff.
“Look, the price of milk alone has gone up from Rs 90 per litre to Rs 140 in six months. You may find the Rs 50 per litre insignificant, but Rs 50 a day increase makes people like me nuts. It takes so many things out of our reach,” she says.
The average citizen is still vulnerable to inflation shocks. The recent inflation wave has damaged purchasing power of many and people are struggling to make ends meet. Successive governments have struggled to create an adequate food safety net for various segments of the society due to a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the growing population, poor planning, ineffective food supply chains, climate change, depleting water resources and a lack of attention to research and development.
Just off MM Alam Road, the locality famous for housing posh brands and high street eateries, stands a dhaba, Faisalabadi Hotel, which catches the attention of many passers-by.
The vendor has placed a board that reads: Put one bread in the basket for the sake of Allah’s pleasure.
He has placed a basket in which many customers put a roti bought from the same hotel.
“Well, this is the arrangement for those who can’t pay for food,” says the vendor, Usman.
“I started this after I recently found several daily wagers coming to the eatery and sharing a plate of daal among two or three people. These people do physical labour and need more food. So, I started the charity basket, offering the customers, who can afford to pay for roti and I will sell a dish at half price or even give it for free those who can’t pay the full price.” The basket helps a daily wager to have a for Rs 50. Otherwise its costs Rs 150. This also keeps their self-respect intact.
A few yards from this dhaba, stands a langar khana being run by MPA Muraad Raas.
People wearing worn-out clothes and faded shoes move in a queue to the bar where a man is handing two rotis and daal to each person.
“They are labourers, daily wagers, homeless or too poor to buy a meal for themselves,” says the person in charge. People get food one by one and sit on the ground in groups.
Shouldn’t there be a more dignified way to feed them? Look, there are no seating arrangements for the recipients of meals.
“No complaint,” says Ali Khan, a daily wager, who feeds himself from the langar khana three times a day. “The meal is nice and the staff is very polite to me.” Ali Khan belongs to Mansehra and works as a night security guard at a business location in Gulberg.
The in-charge refuses to talk about seating arrangements. He says the meal is distributed three times a day, 365 days a year. There are several such facilities organised by the minister in his constituency. He started these during the Covid-19 lockdown. Some may call this political optics by the politician, but most of the beneficiaries are labourers from far-off districts.
In the Gulberg region, Nasir is the owner of Haji Sadiq Ali Catering Services. According to him, food charity has grown during the past few months. He claims to have five clients, including two wedding hall owners, who get to cook two degs on average each day and distribute those among the neediest and most impoverished members of society. He says Gulzar Khan Foundation, a charity established in memory of the late Senator Gulzar Khan, shut its services recently for reasons best known to the late senator’s sons. The charity used to feed people on Guru Mangat Road.
Most of the food philanthropy centres are run by industrialists. What is the state doing to feed the people?
The people of Pakistan have the right to enjoy a basic standard of living, through efficient social protection systems. Governments must ensure that the people are not exposed to perils like poverty and hunger. The United Nation’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development lists, ending poverty in all its forms everywhere as its first goal. Pakistan, like other countries, is committed to ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions including eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.
The PTI government led by Imran Khan had started dastar khawan, a free meal initiative, in several cities. The initiative earned it the disapproval of the media and many opinion makers.
Corporate lawyer Rauf Shakoori appreciates these soup kitchens but calls them a response that does not address food security.
Over the past two decades, Pakistan has done well to curtail the percentage of poverty. It declined from 66.5 percent in 2001 to 21.5 percent in 2018. However, after declining for almost two decades, it gained pace and increased to 21.9 percent in 2019.
In the prevailing troubling times, he stresses the implementation of corporate social responsibility (CSR), to address hunger issues. The CSR, he says, are voluntary social and environmental initiatives undertaken by businesses in areas like investment in the community through skill development, health initiatives, promotion of education, infrastructure development, social enterprise development, provision of safe drinking water, poverty alleviation, youth development and environmental conservation, working on governance areas like human rights, transparency, anti-corruption, fair business practices and climate change.
“As a CSR measure corporate and non-corporate bodies have come forward to establish soup kitchens in urban and rural centres, which work as a lifeline to poor and impoverished people who cannot otherwise meet their basic food requirements. The basic reason behind this cannot be termed as a response to “food security challenges” but rather offering free or subsidised food to the needy so that a helping hand can be extended to them while they are coping with a tough economic situation.”
The Hunger Map data by the United Nations estimates that around 597 Million people do not have sufficient food consumption across 89 countries. Further, the country report published for Pakistan by the UN World food programme states that Pakistan continues to experience high levels of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. According to Pakistan’s Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) 2019-2020, the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in the country, based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale is 16 percent, says Shakoori.
Unaware of the falling or rising poverty index, Sughra is grateful to the man who has handed her a meal, which she will serve to her family in the evening.
The writer is a media veteran interested in politics, consumer rights and entrepreneurship