These “robins” provide food to the needy in hundreds of cities around the world, even during the COVID-19 pandemic

A Robin Hood Army volunteer in Aurangabad   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“Our 20-kilogram happiness pack contains 12 kilos of rice, five kilos of dal, two kilos of sugar, one kilo of salt and two litres of oil... it is a little more than 20 kilos, but that is the pack,” reels off Neel Ghose, co-founder of Robin Hood Army (RHA), over a phone call from Delhi.

This — and a 10-kilogram package containing half the rations — is what “Robins” by the hundred have been handing out in cities and villages across the country over the past few months, to help fellow citizens tide over the string of lockdowns in place to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

Change of plans

This is not how the volunteer-driven organisation usually operates: the key task of this army has always been to provide hot, fresh-cooked meals to those who would otherwise not have access to it. That was the aim when it began as a two-person outfit supported by a few restaurants in Delhi’s Hauz Khas area in 2014; and that is the aim it has retained so far in all of its 182 chapters spread across 13 countries.

Robin Hood Army in Kolkata

Robin Hood Army in Kolkata   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The difference this year is two-fold, says Neel: “First, restaurants’ food count had gone down because most of them had temporarily closed. Second, we had to rethink how we went about serving. Once the pandemic hit, our Robins were at risk. So we pivoted: we started a senior patrol, where anybody could log a request on our website for their aged relatives and parents. Our Robins — we have Robins across every neighbourhood in India — would go and help them, taking them to hospitals and buying medicine.”

Then over time, local Government rules and safety equipment were figured out, and regular operations resumed with a few rules in place.

Robin Hood Academy
  • An offshoot of the army is the Robin Hood Academy, which aims at helping street-children get an education
  • Present in 81 cities, the “academy” has a three-level curriculum that volunteers follow to teach children, but the ultimate goal is to get them enrolled in schools in as many cases as possible
  • It is currently present in 84 cities in India and has reached out to 7,328 students so far, over 1,700 of whom are now enrolled in formal schools
  • The curriculum at each level covers Math, Science, language, Social Studies, Art and Craft and values (like good habits and sharing)
  • There is also an “intellectual” segment at each level, covering things such as reading clocks and basic digital technology

From 2014 to 2020, and from cooked meals to raw rations, Neel insists that the spirit of generosity in people in general, remains the same. “When Anand Sinha and I had begun this in 2014, our idea was to hand out the surplus food from restaurants at the end of each day. When we started putting the word out, restaurants offered to cook fresh food for us to distribute instead. ‘We make staff meals anyway, we will just make more of it,’ they said,” he recollects.

It is the same kindness that he attributes to this year’s growth spurt. “Before the lockdown, we had been serving about 800,000 meals a month, on an average. For the last two or three months, it has been around two million meals a month. I think that there is a lot more civic consciousness: everyone wants to know how to help in their own capacity, whether as a company or as an individual. I think we now have access to sources of food and ration that we didn’t earlier,” says Neel.

The organisation’s biggest strength, he states, is the “high level of ownership” in each Robin. “Someone who is leading a team in Pune or Hyderabad, who is 16 or 17 years old, does not think that someone sitting in Delhi is running it. For them, it is their own baby. And you don’t mess with that,” he points out, adding that RHA wants to retain this by staying zero-fund and completely volunteer-driven.

On the grround (Clockwise from far left) Robin Hood Army’s volunteers in Kolkata, Ujjjain and Aurangabad special arrangement

On the grround (Clockwise from far left) Robin Hood Army’s volunteers in Kolkata, Ujjjain and Aurangabad special arrangement   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

This, despite a 2018 Harvard Business School case study delving into the army’s operations and wondering if it is sustainable on an expanded scale. Neel believes the organisation’s overseas expansions have already proven that it is:

“Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal have been growing rapidly. Bahrain and Malaysia have increased activities in the last mission. And then there are places such as Botswana and Nigeria, where we have drives once a month or so.”

One thing that evidently matters to Neel, is brand value on the ground, at the hyper-local level. “In Karachi, which is at this point our strongest chapter, our brand is such that if a restaurant has a Robin Hood Army sticker, more people are likely to dine there. So restaurants give us food not just out of goodwill, but also from a business point of view.”

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 3:46:42 PM |

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