Pale and haggard after pacing up and down the stairs of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, a woman moved her blind husband to the Himachal Pradesh government-run Himachal Serai Bhawan in Sector 24.
Leaving him behind, she walked to a government school nearby to bring her son back. Then she went to a neighbourhood dhaba to fetch meal for three. No, she did not look for food from the bhawan canteen, for she can't afford it. She could until September 30, but since the contractor changed, the prices have more than doubled.
Built for the poor arriving from Himachal Pradesh for treatment at the PGI, the bhawan offers a bed for just Rs 15 a day, but a thali (plate) that cost Rs 20 for years now takes Rs 45 to buy. "I am from a very poor family and my blind husband can't work," said the woman from Finghas in Shimla. "How can I afford a thali that costs Rs 45?"
Staying at the bhawan for the past three years, she lives on money sent in by her brother, a shop hand in Shimla. Brewing discontent over the ratcheted-up food charges is not difficult to see. The similar tale of Surjeet Kaur, a kidney patient staying at the bhawan for the past one year, proves that.
Surjeet Kaur is from Junga tehsil in Shimla. "I can't walk, so I hire a rickshaw daily to bring food for my daughter and self from the market," she said. "I request the government to slash the food price at the bhawan."
"We now eat less and go hungry more often," said Nirmal Verma, whose husband is under treatment for cancer of the lyranx. "The food at the outlets nearby is bad and not so diverse." The woman from Haripur Guler in Kangra has been at the bhawan for four months.
"Hum to yahan majboori mein baithe hain. Rs 20 ka Rs 30 karte to bhi hum sabar kar lete par Rs 45 to bahut zyada hai. (We are staying here because we are helpless. If they had increased the price from Rs 20 to Rs 30, even then we could have managed, but Rs 45 is too much)," she said.
Baldev Singh of Fatehpur in Kangra is with his father-in-law, who has a tumor in the throat. "Garib logon ki madad karne ki jagah sarkaar unki jeben kaat rahi hai. (Instead of helping the poor, the government is nicking their pockets.)," he said.
"The government has increased the prices. I can't do anything about it," said junior engineer Subodh Chauhan. "The executive engineer at Kasauli is the final authority."
"The government had to increase the price looking at the rising cost of food ingredients," said executive engineer OP Verma. “The step is in the interest of patients. Earlier, the quality of food was poor, but now it has improved.”
Asked if the price could be reduced for patients who wanted to eat less, he said he would have a meeting with the junior engineer, subdivisional officer and contractor, and decide.