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Service and sevaiyan

Dry ration kits have replaced cooked meals this Ramzan but Iftar4All’s initiative to serve those in need remains undaunted

Iftar4All distributing food in a lockdown-affected area in Hyderabad earlier this month. courtesy iftar4all
Iftar4All distributing food in a lockdown-affected area in Hyderabad earlier this month. courtesy iftar4all

I still remember that warm feeling in my heart," says Anas Tanwir, co-founder of Iftar4All, which distributes food among the underprivileged during Ramzan. Speaking to Mint over the phone, the 31-year-old Supreme Court advocate recalls visiting Lucknow’s Aastha Geriatric Hospital & Hospice during Eid in 2018, carrying festive specialities such as dahi vada, pakodas and sugar-free sevaiyan for the elderly. He was assisted by a motley crew of friends and assistants, among them lawyers, businessmen and writers. “The elderly couldn’t believe there was so much food. Some of them knew it was their last Eid," recounts Tanwir, adding, “For me, it was the best Eid ever."

Tanwir says the idea of Iftar4All took shape during conversations with his mentor Sanjay Hegde, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court. Before launching it with Lucknow-based independent human rights researcher Sanobar Fatma, Tanwir and a few friends had started the practice of inter-faith iftars to welcome people from all religions into their homes during Ramzan and share the evening spread of snacks, sharbats and sevaiyan.

It’s not the only initiative of its kind. In Mumbai, Our Lady of Lourdes, a church in suburban Malad, organized an inter-faith iftar last year. In Kolkata, a voluntary organization, Know Your Neighbour, had also started inter-faith iftars. “It is an attempt to dispel Islamophobia," says Tanwir.

Over time, however, he realized more needed to be done. Hegde had planted the idea of seva, or service, in his mind and this led to the formation of Iftar4All in 2018. They began operations in Delhi, soon extending their food distribution effort to cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad and Lucknow. “It didn’t matter which community we served. If we are informed that a group needs food, we mobilize funds through family, friends and our Twitter page @Iftar4All and reach out," explains Tanwir. Initially, they raised money through personal and professional networks. Subsequently, people began to reach out to them on their Twitter page with queries about donations as well as information about communities that needed food.

In 2019, they launched the international programme, headed by Fatma, and began by distributing food at the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Abuja, Nigeria. “I contacted my senior from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, Khwaja Sadat, who lives there, and we coordinated over phone to get the food made and organize distribution in Abuja. The camps have more than 10,000 people who escaped the atrocities of the Boko Haram. Some do manual labour, others do odd jobs to make ends meet, but most depend on help from good Samaritans. We shared meals of local Nigerian delicacies that year," says Fatma.

This year, strict lockdowns hit their effort. In Nigeria, logistical issues derailed their initiative. They are, however, in discussion with a team in Canada to acquire permits for food distribution, and the process of acquiring permits for Europe and the US has begun with the help of a network of friends. “The plan is on hold till things ease this year, or the next, but we will be doing an Iftar4All programme in California, one of the worst-affected states by the coronavirus," says Fatma. They had planned to distribute food at a homeless shelter in California but could not owing to covid-19 cases there.

Their operations have been in full swing in India, however. Although it is customary to share cooked meals, restrictions related to covid-19 saw them focusing on dry ration like grains, lentils and onions.

Since several organizations are mobilizing dry ration for those in need in Delhi and other big metros, they focused on cities like Dhanbad, Aurangabad, Varanasi and Ranchi. In most places, members from different communities oversee the distribution; Tanwir’s friend Gaurav Tiwari is heading operations in Varanasi. In the Aurangabad area, Iftar4All reached out to about 300 families in hamlets. In Ranchi, law students distributed ration to about 250 people in 20 villages. They procure food from grocery stores, and at subsidized rates from the Food Corporation of India.

The work will continue after Eid too. In Lucknow, they plan to go beyond dry ration and distribute sevaiyan, sugar and dates during Eid this weekend. “No one should miss the sweetness of love, peace and family that makes a festival worth celebrating," says Fatma.

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