An initiative taken to fight hunger and poverty is running dry of funds and scope for improvement.
Yogesh has been working as a bus driver in Bangalore for the past four years. With a monthly salary of Rs 15,000, it might seem that getting a good meal a day is a big task for people like him. However, in every ward of Bangalore, there is an Indira canteen that serves cooked food at very nominal rates, especially for people belonging to the lower economic strata like Yogesh.
“For poor people like me, this place is really good to have food,” said Yogesh. “What would you get for Rs 5 or Rs 10? You might get tea, but where else would you get proper food at this rate?”
Indira Canteens were introduced in Bangalore in 2017 as a food subsidisation programme by the then-incumbent Congress government. Since then, the government of Karnataka has been looking after the canteens while private catering companies are given the contract to provide food, water and the electricity in these canteens. The canteens are popular for serving breakfast at RS 5 while lunch and dinner are served at Rs 10 each.
The canteens are in line with Amma Canteens of Tamil Nadu which are known for serving food at Rs 5. Some other states which run similar food canteens include Madhya Pradesh (Deen Dayal Rasoi), Odisha (Ahar Yojana) and West Bengal (Ma Canteen).
While the age-old Public Distribution System of India is wrought with malpractices and complaints of substandard quality of grains, food subsidisation programmes like Indira Canteen have been hailed by many beneficiaries as a better alternative. Beneficiaries of Odisha’s Ahar Yojana once remarked to reporters of Hindustan Times that they are apathetic towards the existing PDS system. They said, “Why to bother complaining about poor quality of rice when we have ready-made food available in these canteens?”
However, a few nutritionists have flagged concerns about the nutritional quality of food. “Although the food has met with calories, it is mostly carbs,” said Dr Maitreyee De Sarkar, a nutrition consultant based in Bangalore. “But trace elements like fiber, protein, iron, Vitamin B12 and B6 are missing.”
Despite this, Govind Babu Poojary, the head of ChefTalk Food and Hospitality Services feels this is a service for the poor both as a source of food and as a means of livelihood. His company has been providing cooked food in 80 per cent of these canteens since the inception of the programme.
“We took it as a challenge while many backed out saying there is no profit in providing food at such low rates. It is both a service and a business,” he said. “Moreover, people who work here are neither very educated nor belong to well-to-do families. We hire them through local leaders and our HR team. Then, we train these people for just a day. We just tell them that they should treat everyone as equal and as a customer.”
However, these catering companies, which have employed more than 800 people to work in Indira Canteens, are facing a financial crisis as the government has been showing reluctance to allocate money to the canteens. In the 2019-20 annual budget of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city’s administrative body, there was no mention of Indira Canteens. It led to a blame game where the BBMP said that the programme was a state government scheme and hence was not accounted for in the BBMP budget that year. However, in the updated budget of 2021-22 of the BBMP, the section under “Indira Canteen Food Supply Programme” accounted for Rs 81.27 crores.
“Since April 2020, we have not received any payment from the BBMP. Now there is a pending of around Rs 22 crores. We have not been able to pay our employees on time,” Poojary said.
Apart from salary, the menu had to be modified in accordance with the low budget.
“Since the government has delayed the payments, we are making do with one single item in the meals,” said Sandhya, an employee in the Indira Canteen of Madivala. “We also had to remove Idli-Sambar from breakfast because of this. The customers complain about this.”
However, the BBMP also understands the importance of the canteens. They noted that the canteens were serving packaged meals during the lockdown period to labourers and poor people.
Although the recently released budget of the BBMP has estimated an amount of Rs 8000 crore for the canteens, only time will tell whether the budget gets properly utilised or if it would create more trouble for this humanitarian cause.