Seven-year-old Nasima waits for the days when she will have plenty of food to eat. She claps delightedly upon seeing a vehicle approach the roadside shanties in east Delhi. Her friends, Bunty, Sonia, Monu and several other children have also spotted the vehicle and surround it. Residing in east Delhi with their parents and siblings for the past many months, they all know the vehicle contains food packets.
A group of boys and girls wearing green T-shirts step out of the vehicle. Part of the Robin Hood Army (RHA), the young volunteers spread out in the area, distributing food to the homeless and hungry — especially to children, who are absolutely delighted by the packs containing sweets, cakes and cookies. Fully absorbed in relishing the delicacies, they look up only after polishing off their plates.
“When will you come next? Please come again tomorrow,” Bunty implores, looking at Prashant, who heads the RHA team. The volunteers have been frequenting the area with a variety of food items and have become familiar with many names and faces in the area. Ensuring they will meet soon, the volunteers wave back to the children and head to the next destination — an orphanage devoted to differently-abled children.
RHA, a voluntary organisation founded in August 2014 by two 27-year-old friends, Neel Ghose and Anand Sinha, is functioning with an agenda to reduce food waste and strengthen community ties across cities.
Ghose is currently vice-president of International Operations at Zomato, a food and restaurant finder, while Sinha is a director at Freecharge, an e-commerce website. “What motivates us is that food is going to people who need it the most,” they say. “But there’s so much more to be done.”
RHA happened by chance. “Even though the name is drawn from Robin Hood, the champion of the poor who was known to steal from the rich and give to the poor, inspiration actually came from ReFood International,” Ghose says. “While I was working in Lisbon, Portugal, Zomato partnered with ReFood, an organisation which distributes surplus food from restaurants to less fortunate people via a few thousand volunteers. I wanted to start a similar concept in India.”
With the help of his partner Sinha, his friends and colleagues, Ghose kicked off a volunteer-driven enterprise in Delhi, hoping to make an impact in a small way. They drove to restaurants, collecting unsold food and re-packaging it.
“The first time we set out to distribute food to around 100 people sleeping on roadsides, we realised the enormity of the problem,” Ghose recalls. “I cannot forget the expression of satisfaction on the faces of those hungry people. It did bring in some satisfaction, even though it was not even a drop in the ocean. But soon friends, colleagues and strangers joined us on drives and the number of volunteers began to swell.”
Once that worked, Ghose set forth to create self-sustained communities across the city, which meant people living in an area would contribute to the homeless of their locality. To his surprise, within a few months a nationwide volunteer movement had emerged to curb food wastage and eradicate hunger.
“The scheme spread far and wide through social media,” Ghose says. “The constantly updated Facebook page of RHA has led many to join it, with the result [being] that similar scenes are now in over 18 Indian cities, including Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Udaipur, Allahabad, Dehradun, Bhopal and Goa.”
The modus operandi has been simple — small teams of young professionals, including software engineers, chartered accountants and lawyers, scout for local restaurants and convince them to donate surplus food. They identify clusters of people in need and carry out weekly distributions, even during weekdays. This way, Ghose and Sinha’s physical presence is not required in any city. They simply guide volunteers on how to form communities for the RHA.
While most restaurants provide dal (lentils), rice, roti, biryani and a variety of cooked vegetables, children are even more delighted the day they get cakes, brownies and biscuits. The scale of involvement with the project is now such that some restaurants even offer to cook fresh meals for distribution.
“Although initially we ventured out only on weekends, several restaurants contact us even on weekdays to collect surplus food,” Prashant says. “In such eventualities, we head to serve the needy after our office hours. To show legitimacy, we [find] restaurant photographs showing what they do and upload them on our Facebook page. This has helped and things have taken a huge leap forward.”
Barely two months after its drive in New Delhi, RHA made inroads into Karachi, Pakistan, with the mission to feed the homeless. “In fact, Karachi is one of our most organised chapters,” says Ghose. “They have put a lot of systems in place. Their planning and distribution system is highly efficient and they have grown very strong over the last two years.”
RHA’s international operations are now running in 13 countries including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Phillippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Mexico and Australia. They wish to focus more on South Asian, African and Latin American countries, according to Ghose, as there are considerably more hunger problems as compared to other parts of the world.
According to the World Food Programme, our planet produces enough food to feed seven billion people, but one in eight goes hungry every night. RHA’s vision is to inspire and create more self-sustaining chapters all over the world to look after their local communities and give back to society. To coordinate and recruit new members, RHA has used social media platforms and hopes to rope in college students.
“We are lucky to get immense support from all around,” Ghose enthuses. “The only struggle with all of us is time constraint as everyone associated with us is juggling [volunteerism] with their full-time careers. We do have many students from colleges including Lady Shri Ram [College for Women] and Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi, and feel good that they are getting exposed to working for a social cause at a young age.
“After all, they are the ones who can actually shape the way our generation thinks. At the same time, we are gearing up to make it a household exercise by roping in retired people and those who have the time to spare.”
Since RHA discovered there was no dearth of people wishing to make a difference, it set up another wing called the Robin Hood Academy, where volunteers conduct regular weekend classes on the streets across the cities of India.
“The idea is to teach not just children, but also adults, with a standardised curriculum. The aim is to get these kids admitted into local government schools. What began three months back [already] has over 200 children across the country enrolled into schools. We want the numbers to go up,” Ghose says.
Interestingly, this is the result and the power of a decentralised system, where volunteers make their own decisions instead of adhering to any set rules, as is generally the norm with any NGO. Ghose explains: “RHA is a registered NGO, but it does not function like one. Importantly, we do not accept monetary contributions. RHA only needs a person’s time and the inclination to serve society.”
However, individuals wishing to help sometimes directly transfer funds to people selling blankets and warm clothing. The RHA volunteers then collect the items and reach out to the needy to protect them from the harsh winter as was the case recently in Delhi and its neighbouring cities. Going beyond their mission, many have been distributing stationery items to children who cannot afford to buy them.
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.