“There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed”— Woodrow Wilson
After announcement of the budget for coming fiscal year 2019-20 and Finance Bill 2019 by the present government, there is a growing apprehension as to how the poor and the middle class families are going to run their kitchens. What are the items they would need to drop from their daily menus and which types of cheaply available food can they add to make up for nutritional deficiencies. Indeed, these are very significant issues as food is the basic need for all living beings and takes priority over all other essentials. Even though, it is the prime duty of the government to ensure that every citizen living in its domain gets at least two square meals a day but unfortunately, in Pakistan, every person, especially the poor, is left to fend for himself while the ruling elite enjoy highly subsidized food that most of the time goes to waste.
Since the majority 95% hapless people of this country are left on their own, they have no choice but to struggle to feed themselves and their families while the wannabe nouveau riche whose purses are full of dirty cash are at liberty to throw away half eaten food items in the dustbins. With rampant illiteracy, expecting that the poor would be able to chalk out a nutritionally balanced diet within their paltry earnings, is quite absurd. Their main interest is filling their starving bellies with whatever they can manage to find. Whether the food is nourishing, unhealthy, stale, even bad, is not their concern and considering the poor state of living conditions, they are struck with disease, another calamity of which the existing services in Pakistan are both deficient and incompetent. Out of the frying pan, into the fire!
Pakistan takes pride in being an Islamic ideological state. With a predominant Muslim population, it is not a surprise that the whole country is dotted with more than 1,200,000 mosques some of which are huge structures that are only meant to house the congregation of worshippers during the prayer times or to conduct Quran classes for children. In some neighbourhoods there are multiple mosques representing different sects. These mosques fall under the department of waqf (trust) properties and any income arising from parts rented out are tax free. Exploiting the law related to mosques, any land grabber can conveniently declare a plot of land as site for a mosque and no one, not even the law enforcement agencies, can do anything about it. Anyhow, the idea here is not to trace the mosque trail but to talk about a crucial service these mosques can render to the community. One can learn a lot from the precedence set by the Dawoodi Bohra Community, generally in wherever they are located but specifically in Kota, a city of Rajasthan in India.
More than four years ago, the late community high priest, Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin floated the concept of ‘community kitchen’ situated in their mosque, known as Jamaat Khana that caters to the dietary needs of the members, irrespective of their social and financial status, who receive tiffins or lunch boxes with sufficient food to cover two meals daily. The underlying philosophy was to rid the Kota women from the hassles of the kitchen so that they could spend quality time in educating their children, devoting more time to religious obligations or even adding to the income of the household through employment or business. The motto is: “No one sleeps hungry in the community. The idea is to provide nutritious food to all and promote the practice worldwide.” What a brilliant way to nurture mutual harmony, care and thoughtfulness while simultaneously ensuring that no soul is a victim of starvation!
The modus operandi of this system is that families contribute a fixed sum every month and food is delivered to their homes. Those who are financially better placed, pay a lot more than their share, so that the less privileged can get their tiffins at subsidized rates. The food is prepared under strict supervision in the common kitchen inside the Jamaat Khana premises.
Besides Kota, this idea is being replicated in other cities and interestingly, people belonging to other faiths and communities are also benefitting. There are many localities in Delhi, for example that are running these kitchens and according to a non-Bohra member, this has provided them with great relief in terms of thinking about food, making good use of the available time from the shackles of the home kitchen, entertaining guests by requesting for additional boxes and last but not the least, tremendous amount of saving of money that is needed for other life’s necessities. Any bystander or traveller in the city is entitled to obtain food from these kitchens at no extra price. There is no discrimination as regards religion because the needs of all human beings are the same.
Taking cue from this idea, one can start off localized campaigns, especially in poorer localities to use the mosques for preparing and distributing food. Services of the Imam masjid can be hired for promoting this concept. He has a hold over the community that respects him as a religious leader and anything he says would be heard. The women who stay home bound up in their respective kitchens can participate in making meals for all while the mosque premises could be put to better use during slack times.
There certainly would be many reservations about this scheme as we are not geared to working as a community which is quite disheartening but if put in practice, will definitely produce beneficial results for those impoverished who have to presently run from pillar to post to seek food for their families. With freedom from this heavy obligation, men can better focus on earning their livelihood, women in rendering a helping hand with the home finances and children would be well fed. This would also reduce the burden on government hospitals as the nation progresses towards better health.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)