A nonprofit group strives for zero hunger in Bangladesh

Children gather at a Mirpur site in Dhaka to collect meal packets from Bidyanondo helpers. For many, it will be their only proper food of the day. In the past three years the volunteer group has handed out more than 2.5 million meals. (Supplied photo)
Updated 18 October 2019

A nonprofit group strives for zero hunger in Bangladesh

  • Bidyanondo provides food to needy under-12 children and men and women 60 years or older
  • In the last three years, Bidyanondo has distributed more than 2.5 million meal boxes to the needy

DHAKA: The time was 2:30 p.m. Small knots of children were loitering around the main street in the Mirpur area of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Suddenly their faces lit up as a brightly painted rickshaw van appeared. The vehicle, bearing the words “Bidyanondo,” was stacked with food packets.

About 60 children from a nearby slum quickly formed a queue, each holding a one-taka coin that would enable them to buy their day’s lunch. For most, this was the only proper meal they could afford in the entire day.

“I come here every day so that my two granddaughters, Raina and Ranisa, don’t go hungry,” said Rajia Begum, 51, as she collected two food packets for the twins.




Volunteers distribute ‘one taka meal’ boxes to children in Dhaka’s Mirpur district. (Supplied photo)

“My son, who is a driver by profession, does not make enough to feed all six members of our family. So the children wait for their Bidyanondo meal every afternoon.”

A pioneer of the cheap-meal concept, Bidyanondo charges children under 12 as well as men and women older than 60 a token one taka ($1 is equivalent to 84 Bangladeshi taka) for each meal.

The volunteer organization, whose mission is “to foster philanthropy domestically and internationally by designing innovative programs,” spends 28 Bangladeshi taka to prepare the meal it gives away for one taka.

INNUMBERS

370,000 - Bidyanondo’s Facebook follower count

2,000 - Daily recipients of a Bidyanondo meal

84 - Bangladeshi taka equivalent to $1

300 - Total number of Bidyanondo volunteers

The “one taka meal” is the brainchild of 38-year-old Kishore Kumar Das, a Peru-based Bangladeshi who said it was his life’s dream to feed the poor in a way that, unlike begging, did not diminish their sense of self-worth.

“As a child, I had to face extreme poverty because my father could not manage to feed seven members of his family. I used to walk several miles to find free meals distributed at temples,” said Das, who is also the chief of volunteers at Bidyanondo.

“People from different corners of society take the same meal in a temple irrespective of class or caste. This unique idea inspired me to do something in the same way for underprivileged members of Bangladeshi society.”

Besides Dhaka, Bidyanondo — Bengali for “Learn for Fun” — operates the “one taka meal” program in four Bangladeshi cities: Chattogram, Narayanganj, Rajshahi and Rangpur. It also provides food, accommodation, education and medical care to about 300 residents of five orphanages.

“Charging one taka for a single meal is a symbolic approach through which we want to create a sense of ownership in the recipient’s mind,” said Salaman Khan, coordinator of Bidyanonodo’s Dhaka branch. “We want to convey a feeling that people are buying the food from us, not begging for it.”

Bidyanondo’s journey began in June 2016 when it began feeding 30 children in need in Chattogram, in southeastern Bangladesh.




Meals and food packets are prepared at the Bidyanondo Foundation office for distribution among Dhaka’s needy. 
(AN photo by Shehab Sumon,  Arab News)

Within a year, the group was providing food to 800 needy people every day. By 2018, the number of recipients had risen to 1,200. This year, almost 2,000 people every day across Bangladesh are receiving at least one square meal a day, thanks to Bidyanondo’s determination to “relieve the pain of hunger.”

“From cooking to distribution of food, we do everything by ourselves,” Khan told Arab News. “We have a special team of five or six members who cook. All of them are doing the job as volunteers.

“We operate our food program 365 days a year. Our volunteers work even on Eid days to feed needy people.”

Bidyanondo relies on crowdfunding for funds to support its programs.

“We have a Facebook group through which we organize the funding,” Khan said. “Bidyanondo has more than 370,000 followers on its Facebook page. All our benefactors are Bangladeshi and most prefer to remain unidentified.”

In the past three years, Bidyanondo has distributed more than 2.5 million meal boxes to children and older people in need. It has a workforce of 300 registered and non-registered volunteers across the country comprised mainly of students.

The 40 full-time staff members are stationed in the nonprofit’s offices across Bangladesh. A small number of housewives also volunteer at local branches of Bidyanondo.

The idea of selling cheap meals has spread to other countries through Bidyanondo’s network of overseas Bangladeshi volunteers. Das said that pilot programs are being tried out in Peru, Italy, Turkey, Nepal and India.

“We want Bidyanondo to inspire others to commit some of their time and energy to social causes,” Das said. “If everyone does their bit, there will be no huge disparity in society.”

Among those doing their bit is Asma Akter, a 31-year-old physician employed in a government-run general hospital in Manikgonj, 40 km from Dhaka. On her days off, she turns up at Bidyanondo’s local branch to offer free medical consultations to the needy.

“I have my full-time government job for earning money. But I can’t have mental peace with the money,” she said. “Bidyanondo is a platform where I can look after the people who need my support the most.”

Akter added: “Words cannot express the kind of joy I get from performing this social service. It is a very good example of teamwork. Every day I learn from my colleagues here how to spend my time in the service of others.”

Back in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, among the children waiting to collect a meal box that afternoon was eight-year-old Mohammad Solaiman. “My father is a day laborer and mother works as domestic help,” he said.

“At noon they both are busy at work. With my two brothers, I collect food from the Bidyanondo rickshaw van every day. It is very convenient for us.”


Violence flares again in Hong Kong as Chinese soldiers make rare appearance to help clean up streets

Updated 16 November 2019

Violence flares again in Hong Kong as Chinese soldiers make rare appearance to help clean up streets

  • Huge fires blaze as protesters hurl petrol bombs near campus
  • City on edge as over five months of demonstrations rumble on

HONG KONG: Police fired tear gas while protesters threw petrol bombs and fired arrows in clashes outside Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University on Saturday, just hours after Chinese soldiers made a rare appearance to help clean up the city’s streets.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in shorts and t-shirts appeared in streets outside their base, helping residents clean up debris after anti-government protests blocked roads.
The presence of PLA troops on the streets, even to help clean up, could stoke further controversy over the Chinese-ruled territory’s autonomous status.
A city spokesman said the Hong Kong government did not request assistance from the PLA but the military initiated the operation as a “voluntary community activity.”
Hong Kong has been rocked by more than five months of demonstrations by protesters angry at perceived Communist Party meddling in the former British colony, which was guaranteed its freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing denies interfering and has blamed the unrest on foreign influences.
Clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent. China has said any attempt at independence for Hong Kong will be crushed, but troops have remained inside their base.
Chinese state media repeatedly broadcast comments made on Thursday by President Xi Jinping, in which he denounced the unrest and said “stopping violence and controlling chaos while restoring order is currently Hong Kong’s most urgent task.”
Saturday’s clean-up followed some of the worst violence seen this year, after a police operation against protesters at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Tuesday.
The authorities have since largely stayed away from at least five university campuses that had been barricaded by thousands of students and activists who stockpiled petrol bombs, catapults, bows and arrows and other weapons.
Many protesters appeared to have left the campuses by late Saturday but Hong Kong’s Cross-Harbor Tunnel was still blocked by protesters occupying Polytechnic University, where violence flared again on Saturday night.
“We don’t want to attack the police, we just want to safeguard our campus,” said Chan, a 20-year-old Polytechnic student. “The reason why we want safeguard our campus is we want citizens to join the mass strike and protect Hong Kong.”
Earlier, hundreds of pro-China demonstrators gathered by the city’s legislature and police headquarters, waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags. Some held up posters reading “Police we stand with you,” while others chanted “Support the police.”
Pro-China protests have so far attracted much smaller numbers than those angry at Beijing.

Rare troop presence
By late afternoon, the PLA soldiers had left the streets outside Baptist University beside their barracks in Kowloon Tong.
Chinese troops have appeared on streets only once since the 1997 handover to help clear up after a typhoon in 2018. It was not clear how many were involved on Saturday.
The PLA garrison in Hong Kong said that when some residents began cleaning, some troops “helped clear the road in front of the garrison gate.”
Demosistō, a pro-democracy organization, said Saturday’s clean-up operation could set a “grave precedent” if the city’s government invites the military to deal with internal problems.
In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong in what state news agency Xinhua described as a routine rotation. Foreign envoys and security analysts estimate up to 12,000 troops are now based across Hong Kong — more than double the usual garrison number.
Standing beside a black flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times,” James Wong, 23, was among protesters manning a bridge at Baptist University.
“We didn’t want to confront the people and the PLA troops directly,” he told Reuters. “We are not directly against the PLA, but rather the government. But the PLA should not leave their base because this is Hong Kong territory.”
Hundreds of residents moved in to help clear barricaded roads near several universities.
Earlier clashes on Saturday saw at least one petrol bomb thrown before anti-government protesters at the campuses retreated. No soldiers appeared to have been involved in the confrontations. “We just want our lives to continue,” said one resident who was helping clear streets near Hong Kong University. “There are many elderly who need to go the hospital and children who need to go to school. I am very sad to see what is happening in my community.”

Pro-police demonstration
Saturday’s rally to denounce the anti-government violence drew a mix of young and elderly.
“A lot of people keep silent, afraid of the rioters. It’s time for all the people who are silent to step up and say that’s enough,” said a 49-year-old housewife surnamed Kong.
A 70-year-old street cleaner died on Thursday after being hit on the head a brick police said had been thrown by rioters. On Monday, police blamed a rioter for dousing a man in petrol and setting him on fire. The victim is in critical condition.
On the same day, police shot a protester in the abdomen. He was in a stable condition.
Pro-police protesters laid white flowers outside the government office to pay their respects to the cleaner. Others applauded and cheered the police, some bowing and giving thumbs up as they walked past riot police on duty.
Train services suspended earlier in the week were gradually resuming, metro operator MTR Corp. said.
In a commentary on Saturday the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper called on public institutions to act “quickly and decisively” to suppress and punish violence in Hong Kong.