Nearly a thousand men, women and children sitting at dastarkhwan arranged by Rizq, waiting to end their fast on March 29, 2023. Image Credit: Rizq

Islamabad: Few minutes before iftar time, when the roads are less busy and families are setting up tables at home, some people rush for iftar meals generously hosted by volunteers and charity organisations on roads and parks across Pakistan.

On the 9th of Ramadan in the Lyari neighbourhood of Karachi, around a thousand men, women and children gather around a dastarkhwan (long tablecloth) spread out on the ground, waiting to break their fast with a plate of pulao (one-pot rice dish), water, dates, and fruits. The colourful paper decorations add festivity to the Iftar. The red banner in the background reads “Iftar-e-Aaam”, which means iftar for everyone.

At Kiran Foundation DCTO at Lyari, young volunteers are dishing out meals prepared in hygienic kitchens in traditional enormous silver cauldrons called daig.

Some of the youngsters are serving pulao at the ‘Iftar Dastarkhwan’ with a glass of Rooh Afza, a popular Ramadan drink. The young men and women serving food are volunteers and team members of Rizq, a non-profit organisation founded by three young guys with a mission to end hunger and food wastage in Pakistan.

Rizq distributed 100,000 Iftar meals last year and aims to serve at least 150,000 meals this Ramadan. Image Credit: Rizq

“Last year, we distributed 100,000 Iftar meals. This year, we aim to serve at least 150,000 meals,” Qasim Javaid, the co-founder and CEO of Rizq, told Gulf News. This is the seventh Ramadan food drive by Rizq this year, with iftar being served at four locations in Lahore and one in Karachi.

On March 31 (9th Ramadan), when Rizq provided meals to more than 900 people in Karachi, some 3,800 free iftar meals were distributed across in Lahore at Shaukat Khanum Park Lahore, GC University, Garden Town and e-library at Qaddafi Stadium. Due to continuous rain in the city, the volunteers in Lahore distributed packed meals instead of serving food.

Ramadan charity and record inflation

For many people, Ramadan charity meals are their “only meal of the day.” Imran Basharat, who works as a security guard in Lahore, says free dastarkhwans are a “godsend” for his family of six. With a monthly salary of just around Rs20,000 ($70), eating a full meal at iftar drives saves him enough to meet his family’s urgent needs.

Free iftar dinners are arranged every year throughout the month of Ramadan in the country of 230 million. Despite crushing financial challenges this year, Pakistanis continue to uphold the longstanding tradition of charity during Ramadan by sharing meals and offering free iftars to those who cannot afford them.

Pakistanis give around Rs240 billion ($847 million) annually to charity, according to Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy.

This year, more and more people are arriving at the free meals centres due to rising inflation, the organizers say. Inflation reached an all-time high of 35.3 per cent in March 2023, making it the “highest ever recorded” in the country.

Food and fuel prices have skyrocketed over the past year with even middle-class Pakistanis feeling the economic strain. The currency devaluation and rising unemployment have compounded the situation, with nearly 7 million recently losing their jobs in the textile industry due to factory shutdowns, according to Pakistan’s textile associations.

Soup kitchens struggling to meet demands

Volunteers at Ramadan drives say they are even seeing “well-dressed people” coming to soup kitchens, highlighting the magnitude of economic adversity.

Rizq, a social enterprise founded by three friends, Huzaifa Ahmed, Qasim Javaid and Musa Aamir to solve the problem of hunger and poverty, confirmed this trend. “We are facing a double jeopardy situation with rising inflation and dwindling donations,” Javaid said.

This year, the organisation received 50 per cent fewer donations due to a drastic drop in people’s purchasing power. “On the other hand, we are seeing an increased number of people going hungry.” However, the organisation is committed to its mission to feed the people and is urging people to contribute to its efforts.

MESO Pakistan Iftar drive organized in Karachi. Image Credit: MESO

Charities rising to the challenge

While food banks are struggling to keep up with rising inflation, many are rising to the challenge. Thousands of free meals are being distributed across Pakistan by individuals, volunteers and organizations. Among the major free meal providers are Saylani, Edhi, AlKhidmat, Alamgir welfare, JDC welfare, and student-led MESO Pakistan. Most of these are based in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi.

In one of Karachi’s poorer districts, community kitchen Khana Ghar has been serving food for more than two decades. Parveen Saeed, who runs the kitchen, says the demand has never been higher.

This kitchen provides meals at a nominal cost of only three rupees per plate, and free of charge for those in need. Khana Ghar’s Iftar drive served 12,000 people in 2022 and the community kitchen plans to serve more than 22,000 this year.

Iftar dastarkhwan laid out in Karachi this Ramadan. Image Credit: Supplied

However, this food bank is also struggling due to fewer donations and high inflation. Some days, there is not enough food to feed everyone waiting in queues outside the kitchen. Saeed is worried about the future of the kitchen which relies on donations to cover food costs and the salary of staff.

Desperation and calls for price hike ease

Despite the efforts of philanthropists to feed underprivileged families, citizens are calling on the government and political leaders to address the economic crisis. Every year, Pakistan government offers a Ramadan relief package to subsidise the cost of essential food items such as flour, sugar, and lentils, but some critics doubt the effectiveness of the programme.

Unfortunately, this year’s Ramadan free food distribution has been marred by stampedes, creating chaos and killing at least 22 at food centres since last week. On Friday, at least 12 people, mostly women, died in the race to get free ration bags being distributed by a factory in Karachi’s Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate (SITE) area. The Sindh government has ordered an investigation into the incident and the police has arrested the factory manager along with six other staff members.

The stampedes highlight the level of desperation among people in the face of high food prices. In Pakistan, issues faced by ordinary citizens are often overshadowed by the country’s political turmoil.

The current situation is a “practical example of the country’s dire economic situation”, said Fawad Chaudhry, the former information minister and leader of Imran Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). He criticised the government’s alleged indifference towards the struggling daily wage earners.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also expressed deep concerns about the “mismanagement causing stampedes at wheat flour distribution centres”, and called on the government to improve the distribution system.