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They are our food fighters

A helping hand Volunteers are the backbone of the organisation

A helping hand Volunteers are the backbone of the organisation  

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The Robin Hood Army was formed to address two issues: food wastage and hunger. Now with the Sree Narayana Guru Award for Social Service under its belt, Neel Ghose, one of the founders, talks about how the army was formed and what exactly it is battling

To most of us, Robin Hood is the English outlaw who spent his time battling the Sheriff of Nottingham with his Merry Men and wooing Maid Marian. But, to many homeless and hungry people, Robin Hood is not one man. It’s an army of volunteers who are working to ensure that they get decent food.

The brainchild of Neel Ghose and Anand Sinha, the Robin Hood Army works across 22 cities in India — not counting the ones in neighbouring Pakistan.

The organisation was recently awarded the Sree Narayana Guru Award for Social Service. Excerpts from an interview with Neel.

First, why the name Robin Hood?

The mythological figure Robin Hood is known to steal from the rich and give to the poor. While we try not to break rules, the idea is to act and inspire a community to give back to those who are less fortunate.

Was there a specific trigger/incident that led the founding of this organisation?

Honestly, this happened by chance. I was living and working in Lisbon, Portugal when I happened to chance on Refood, an organisation that redistributes excess food to the needy through volunteers.

I observed their processes and spent some time with the founder understanding the basic workings of the model, before deciding to try something similar back home with Anand. The need, of course, was much greater in India. 

How did your family and friends react to this idea?

Very positively. Everyone wanted to be involved and help in some capacity. There were a few concerns about how we would manage with our full-time careers but, eventually, things worked out. A lot of our colleagues joined us too. 

I think there are enough good people who want to make a difference; all they require is a platform. The Robin Hood Army hopes to provide that.

Can you tell us a little about how exactly you operate?

The Robin Hood Army’s ideology revolves around decentralisation. Small teams — mostly young professionals — are responsible for specific areas; they scout for local restaurants, convince them to donate surplus food, identify clusters of people in need — such as the homeless and orphanages — and carry out weekly distributions.

We have a Whatsapp Group called the Boiler Room, which has the heads of all city chapters across India and Pakistan. Through this we routinely share best practices we follow with our teams so that we can learn off each other.

Besides the work, there is always a healthy exchange of cricket banter on the group too.

Your website says your mode of operations is a decentralised model. Do you have any system of checks and balances for your local chapters?

While the vision of fighting poverty and wastage is the guiding light of most chapters, each team innovates and improvises in its own unique way. We run our teams like mini start-ups.

For example, in Bangalore, the number of homeless people is comparatively less so the team actively visits orphanages and old-age homes. In Delhi, which experiences a harsh winter, we stopped distributing food for a few weeks and focused on making sure the homeless had adequate warm clothes and blankets to see them through the cold spell. The overall objective is to inspire the community to give back to those who need it most.

With respect to checks and balances, we are very careful to ensure that the food we are offering is safe to be consumed. Besides that, the only one rule is that we do not accept monetary donations.

If anyone wishes to help they can do so in kind or, better still, give their time. This ensures that the idea is not misused, no matter how decentralised the RHA gets.

There are RHA chapters in Pakistan too. How did that come about?

Sarah Afridi (who set up RHA Pakistan) is a friend from college. We studied together in the London School of Economics. When the Peshawar school attack happened, I called to offer my condolences. We started talking about the Robin Hood Army and realised that both countries are plagued by similar evils of hunger, wastage, and inequality. This is a way we can create real impact.  Currently Team Pakistan has chapters in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore with a couple of hundred active Robins

Your reaction to receiving the Sree Narayana Guru Award for social service.

This came as a surprise, as we thought one needs to apply for most awards in this sector. We never really thought of doing that.

We are very humbled to be recognised among such a stellar audience, and hope to keep faith and create more impact in the months and years to come. 

Where do you see the Robin Hood Army five years from now? 

Honestly, we do not over-think the long-term future. We look at the RHA as a volunteer start-up. The aim is to focus on execution and scale our operations disruptively. When we started a year back, six Robins fed 150 people. Since then we have fed more than 260,000 people through 1400 Robins spread over 22 cities.

We are looking to move into at least five more countries in the next couple of months. This might seem impressive, but there are over half a billion hungry people for whom getting two square meals is a struggle.

We are not stopping until we have done our best to improve this significantly. 

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Printable version | Aug 15, 2018 5:56:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/they-are-our-food-fighters/article7966143.ece