Mayor’s Ramadan Unity Dinner
“Fighting Hunger – Building Hope” Friday, September 5th, 2014
Keynote Address by Dr Ausaf Sayeed, Consul General of India, Chicago
Hon’ble Mayors Virg Bernero and Nathan Triplett,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies & Gentlemen, Good Evening!
At the outset, I would like to thank both Mayors for inviting me to this unique event and providing me with an opportunity to address this august gathering.
I consider this event ‘unique’ as it gathers people from different faiths, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds under one roof, symbolizing the distinct multi-cultural profile of the United States of America. This concept is not alien to India, as we have most the religions of the world represented in our country. There is endless diversity in India. It is believed that if one travels 100 km through India by road, one may encounter differences in dialects, costumes and even cuisine. This concept of ‘Unity in Diversity’ is unique to India.
It is heartening to know that all those who are gathered here have pledged their support to the cause of combating poverty and hunger by contributing to the Greater Lansing Food Bank.
Another interesting aspect of this event is that it is being held soon after the holy Islamic month of Ramadan during which through fasting, more than one billion Muslims around the world, including some 8 million in North America, experience hunger and thirst, and sympathize with those in the world with little to eat and drink every day. Fasting leads a person to better discipline and control over self and inculcates in him a deep sense of generosity, goodwill and charity toward others.
Ladies & Gentlemen!
We relished a delicious and sumptuous dinner and satiated ourselves with a fine dessert. Now if we pause for a moment and ponder: How many people in the world were as lucky as we are to get a satisfactory dinner that could give them peaceful sleep in the night?
Almost 870 million people across the globe may go to bed hungry tonight, 200 million of them children!! That means that one in every eight people on Earth goes to bed hungry each night!
Hunger is number one on the list of the world’s top 10 health risks. It kills more people every year than AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined.
We may imagine that poverty, chronic hunger and starvation may be problems restricted to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) or the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America or Asia.
No! Hunger transcends geographic boundaries and economic divides. It does not see colour; it does not see race, religion, sect, caste or gender.
Hunger is as much a global problem as it is local. Poverty is an everyday harsh reality from the streets of Washington & Ottawa — capitals of one of the world’s most affluent and stable nations — to the farthest corners of Africa.
Around 17.6 million households, (about 1 in 7), were ‘food insecure’ in the United States (Coleman-Jensen 2013 p.v). 1 in 6 Americans and 1 in 4 children wake up not knowing if they will have the food they need!!
There are about 35 Million Americans who go to bed hungry each night. 1/10th of these hungry people or 3.5 million are homeless but the rest of them have homes but no proper food.
As many as 17 million children are ‘food insecure’ in America. Parents of these children do not know where the next meal will come from. Over 46 million Americans were on Food Stamps after the economic recession. They depend on the Federal Program to buy their grocery.
The story is similar in Canada where 1 in 5 parents skip meals to make sure there is enough food for their children to eat.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”. Gandhi, who fought against injustices to women and the poor, described poverty as “the worst form of violence”.
John F. Kennedy said: “The war against hunger is truly mankind’s war of liberation.”
It is a fact that Hunger emanates from a vicious cycle of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and disease, often leading to crime.
As Pearl S. Buck, an American writer and novelist said “A hungry man can’t see right or wrong. He just sees food.”
So, is Hunger merely a financial problem or is it also a social malaise? Is it preventable? Can we do something about it?
The ironic reality is that there is enough food available in the world to feed all its hungry people!
So, where is the catch?
– Globally, one-third of the food produced is wasted, costing the world economy about US $750 billion (FAO report).
– In my country India, where 1/3rd of the world’s hungry live, and where over 830 million people survive on less than half a dollar a day and over 200 million people sleep hungry every night, astonishingly 40% of the total agricultural produce valued at about Rs 500 billion is wasted every year.
– India and China together cause the loss of 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year.
– Canadians waste $27 billion worth of food each year. 51% cent of that total finishes as unwanted leftovers that end up in the garbage.
– In the United States, 96 million pounds of food is thrown away each year, which is more than enough to feed 50 million people for a whole year and not just the 35 million estimated hungry people here.
How can we reconcile ourselves to these facts?
This brings me to the topic given for Essay Writing this year: “Access to Food –
Right or Privilege”?
The ‘Right to Food’ is a human right that protects the right of the people to feed them in dignity so their dietary needs are met. This right is derived from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 16 December 1966 and has over 160 state parties as signatories.
Ladies & Gentlemen!
Different religious figures, scholars, political thinkers and sociologists in different periods of time have advocated the philosophy of compassion, sharing and caring for others. Respect for food and avoidance of food wastage is ingrained in many societies.
I remember when I was a child my grandmother used to urge us to finish the entire food put on our plates. She used to say: “Your name is written on every grain of rice on your plate”. If we tried to leave even a morsel of food on our plates, she used to prompt us by saying: “Don’t leave anything. These grains would question you before God on the Day of Judgment as to why it was not consumed and allowed to be wasted”. Thus, the fear of God used to make us finish our food.
Years later when I was posted in the Middle East as a diplomat, I came across a unique tradition among the people, of entire families sitting around a large circular plate and eating together. This act of eating from the same plate, I was told, is done not only to strengthen the companionship and bonds of family relationships but also as a way of conserving food.
In the ancient Hindu culture too, the wife takes a small portion of food from her husband’s plate after he finishes his meal, with no repugnance to show her affection towards him.
Likewise, sharing food with one’s neighbours was a common practice among many cultures.
“He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 19:17). These divine blessings may be spiritual rather than material, but a reward is guaranteed — giving to the poor is considered an investment in eternity.
Islam advocates feeding the hungry, regardless of race, religion or background. Prophet Muhammad (pubh) had said a person is not really a Muslim if he goes to bed satisfied while his neighbour goes hungry. According to one Hadith or Prophet’s saying, one out of seven people who will be shaded by God on the Day of Judgment will be “a man who gives charity so secretly that his left hand does not know what his right hand has given.”
Charity and sharing are often encouraged by emphasizing that “Wealth is not diminished by giving”. A popular Indian saying goes like this: “If you give one Rupee, god will give you 100,000 Rupees”.
Mother Teresa said: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” She also said: “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
Some statesmen like Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, believed that “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy.”
This may, indeed, be true.
It is said that Dr Norman Borlaug, a resident of Iowa and a student at the University of Minnesota, saved close to one billion people from starvation by dedicating his life to reversing food shortages around the globe.
While working in Mexico, he discovered that new disease-resistant varieties of wheat could be developed which could double or even triple the grain produce. This discovery resulted in a dramatic increase in the incomes of thousands of farmers in Mexico and changed their lives completely. This was the beginning of the Green Revolution that transformed the lives of millions of farmers across the globe, including those in India. Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize!
Another important historical contact between the United States and India in the field of agriculture was the correspondence between George Washington Carver, who did pioneering research on peanuts and discovered over 300 uses for peanuts, and Mahatma Gandhi. Carver published his research in the form of bulletins that could be used by the common people. Carver sent some of these bulletins to Gandhi in July 1935.
Here, in Lansing itself, a pioneering Indian scientist Dr. Verghese Kurien spent significant time and earned his Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering with Dairy Engineering as a minor subject from the Michigan State University.
On his return to India, Kurien helped to set up a dairy processing plant, which saw the birth of a company called ‘Amul’, whose cooperative model became a success and was replicated throughout Gujarat, a state in western India and later throughout India as ‘Operation Flood’. Soon India became the largest producer of milk in the world and Kurien began to be regarded as the “Father of the White Revolution”.
This flow of ideas across the Atlantic between leading personalities from the world’s oldest democracy (America) to the world’s largest democracy (India), had the potential of transforming the lives of millions across the globe
We all are familiar with the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that is going viral on Facebook. This idea with a ‘Desi’ (Indian) twist is now inspiring thousands of Indians to help the country’s vast population of poor, hungry people.
The Indians simply replaced ice with rice as they could relate to rice better and made it the “Rice Bucket Challenge”. This challenge involves donating a bucket of rice or other edible grains to someone in need and clicking a picture to share online, with the hashtag #RiceBucketChallenge, to raise awareness. Started by 38-year-old journalist Manju Latha Kalanidhi in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, the challenge has already attracted 61,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook and has also gone viral on social media with people in California, Canada, Hong Kong and several other cities joining as participants. Several thousands of pounds of rice are already distributed among the poor.
The Mayor of Lansing has declared September 2014 as the ‘Hunger Action Month’, we need a similar “Rice Bucket Challenge” right here in Lansing. We need this challenge to fulfil the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr, who while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, on December 10, 1964, had said: “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits”.
Let’s Fight Hunger together … Let’s Build Hope.