Picture this: it’s May 2011, and two friends have just quit the hedge fund they’ve been working at for two years in Hyderabad. Their wallets bulging with cash their colleagues pooled in as a farewell gift, the two debate over how best to spend their riches. They end up taking 15 underprivileged kids to a mall for a meal and a movie. It’s a move that’s neither revolutionary nor rare. But, this simple act of benevolence becomes the genesis of a movement that’s touching thousands of less fortunate lives today.
Neel Ghose, as the vicepresident of Zomato, and Anand Sinha, as the CEO of PressPlay, wake up to extremely demanding work schedules every day. But, all that’s on their minds is how to kick-start the Kenya, Nigeria, Colombia and Brazil chapters of the Robin Hood Army, the movement they founded three years ago. “Some weeks ago, we set ourselves three-month goals on what we want to do,” says Ghose. “Then Al Jazeera carried this video about the work the Robin Hood Army is doing in Pakistan, and it received five million views, and suddenly all our goals changed. People across the world wrote to us saying they wanted to start something similar in their country. Reacting to something like this while doing full-time jobs isn’t easy, but it has to be done.” Ghose and Sinha’s altruistic initiative has truly gone global, but to appreciate their achievements — and there are many — let’s backtrack a little.
In 2014, Ghose was working in Lisbon, Portugal, when he heard of the Re-food Movement, an organisation that aims to eliminate food waste by procuring excess food from people and giving it to those who can’t afford two square meals a day. After volunteering with Re-food and understanding how their processes work, Ghose bounced the idea to Sinha to do something similar in India and thus was born the Robin Hood Army (RHA), named after the legendary do-gooder.
In August 2014, the Robin Hood Army — all of six cadets — marched the streets of Delhi, serving excess food collected from restaurants to 150 homeless people. By the end of that year, this army of ‘robins’ had swelled to 200 and had spread to eight cities in India. Stoked by their success, the organisation decided to expand their reach to orphanages, old-age homes, shelters and even public hospitals.
While word-of-mouth publicity, strong social media presence and good press have helped, what has really kept the Robin Hood train on track is being ‘hyper-local’. “That’s one thing I learned from Re-food,” says Ghose. “The hyper-local model means that as a robin, I am serving my immediate community. For example, if we are serving the people in Goregaon, the food will come from restaurants in Goregaon and the volunteers will be Goregaon residents. The idea is that I don’t have to spend a lot of time but I can create a difference to people around me.” Eager restaurateurs have also been crucial to the army’s work. “Many of them don’t give us wasted food; they make fresh food for us.”
To mark their first anniversary, the RHA launched the Mission 100K project in August last year. The idea was to serve 1,00,000 people in India and Pakistan on the independence days of both countries. This year, the merry men and women went many steps ahead. In August they carried out the Mission 500K drive and were not just supported by leading Indian start-ups, but also musicians such as Farhan Akhtar, Uday Benegal and Vishal Dadlani who composed a special anthem for the cause. For Zahra Ahmad, head of the Lahore chapter of the RHA, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “There are 130 robins in Pakistan across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad,” she says. “Lahore was a small chapter in the Mission 500K drive committed to serving 5000 people. However, once we started spreading the word and got partners onboard, we realised so many people were willing to help. We conducted six drives over the Independence Day weekend and were able to feed over 7000 people. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had as a robin.”
No. of robins in the Robin Hood Army
Members of the Robin Hood Army in India and Pakistan
Today, the army has nearly 7000 volunteers and has served over a million people in 30-plus cities — all this without accepting a single rupee as donation. “The Robin Hood Army is set up as a charitable trust, but we do not look at it as charity,” says Ghose. “We look at it as a platform on which people can come and make a difference. All we ask for is your time, because it’s not just about giving the food, but also spending time with the people we’re serving. That’s what they are not used to; they’re used to charity, but they aren’t used to people just talking to them.” A company with no money, no revenue, no office and no employees; a company that takes only to give — the army embodies the heroic iconoclasm the famous English outlaw would have approved of.