In the mid-Nineties, Manohar Joshi, Gopinath Munde, Narasimha Rao, Sharad Pawar and Atal Behari Vajpayee, among others, had many satisfying meals of jhunka bhakar at various outlets in Bombay and the Konkan. It cost them only one rupee a meal.
But as the Collectors of these districts discovered, the Joshis and the Mundes, the Raos and the Pawars and Vajpayees returned again and again to the jhunka bhakar stalls to fill their bellies with this poor man’s repast when they could have well afforded luxurious food without so much as pinching their pockets for five course spreads each day, every day. But then these Joshis and Mundes were not the originals. They were not even doubles. These were simply some famous names filled in in the registers by the stall owners when the authorities got strict about enforcing the one-rupee meal scheme, one of the pet projects of the Shiv Sena-BJP government in the last decade. In fact, it was one of their many hare-brained schemes that set the exchequer in Maharashtra back by millions of rupees.
The scheme, I remember, had faced severe resistance from the state bureaucracy. One officer working on the nitty-gritty of the cheap meal policy had then told me with great contempt, “You don’t get a cup of tea in the subsidised canteen at Mantralaya for one rupee! You expect to sell at that price?’’
Of course, no one would sell even this simple meal of jowar/bajre-ki-roti and garnished besan at that price. We took to calling it the “poor man’s pizza” — millet with onion, coriander and fox glove toppings (though I could never make out what those herbs really were). However, those ingredients took a lot more than just a rupee to put together even for the poor man. So the Manohar Joshi government decided to subsidise it, spending Rs 3 for every Re 1 it sold for.
But when the Collectors decided that the names and addresses of the beneficiaries be recorded, the Joshis and Mundes turned up with fictitious addresses. “What can we do?” moaned the real beneficiaries, the stall-owners. “They write down these names and addresses and how are we to tell?” Even the strictest of Collectors had to throw up his hands in disgust.
Jhunka bhakar was one of my most interesting assignments that decade and I discovered that while the stall owners ‘sold’ about 400 meals on average each day for the record, they would make only half or even less that number of meals and pocket the remaining amount of the subsidy (jhunka bhakaras also the millet and onions), using the money to sell samosas and dosas the rest of the time from their jhunka bhakar stalls. The government looked upon them benignly, for it could not admit that its most talked about scheme was its biggest failure.
But I also discovered that the stalls were used for other purposes — the lights used to be on inside many stalls, with shutters pulled down, all night. A midnight investigation revealed that many of them had been turned into open-air bars or liquor dens — service was from behind the stall, in the dark (they opened both onto the street corners, during the day, and from behind, at nights). But more than that, it was an attempt to grab real estate, those very street corners, in prime localities all over Bombay and the suburbs. So today I have little sympathy for stall-owners who are screaming blue murder at the government for stopping the scheme — all that talk about denying poor people one square meal a day and throwing the stall owners into the ranks of the unemployed is so much bull.
Actually the whole scheme, I believe, was a classic example of those in power seeking to benefit their friends and relatives. And the reason why Narayan Rane could not drop it when he came to power as Chief Minister for six months in 1999 is that many assorted members of the Thackeray household had become part of the scheme by then and were themselves running jhunka bhakar stalls all over town. Rane, however, was brutal in putting paid to Manohar Joshi’s other pet scheme — the Mayor-in-Council — which was another way of pushing transparency at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation behind closed doors to benefit five or six corporators who would operate at the behest of the authorities-that-be.
Now, apart from claiming back all that land allotted to the stalls, the government can also begin to save a lot of funds that have gone into subsidising these real estate rackets in the name of the poor. But if the Congress-led Democratic Front government finds it easy to do so, it is only because the Sena-BJP men were greenhorns when they came to power in the Nineties and did not quite know how to really work their crony capitalism in the manner that the Congress and NCP do — the latter have it down to a fine art and no one really knows when they go about it, being, so to speak, to the manner born.
I recall, a few years ago, when the Congress-NCP replaced the Sena-BJP in Mantralaya, all the sugar barons in the government hatched up a scheme that they thought to pass off as a revenue-earner for the government (the Sena-BJP had depleted the treasury of its funds, they moaned). But it was no more than a very fine attempt to line their own pockets. No new liquor shop licences had been issued in Maharashtra since 1974 and the government decided to give out some fresh ones because, as they said, “the population had increased” in two-and-a-half decades and it was the “need of the hour”. But even these descendants of a party that stood by the tenets of Gandhi could not justify how or why it was necessary to get a state drunk on freshly-brewed liquor and it had to withdraw the scheme in a hurry when other “socialist’’ parties that made up the tail of the coalition began to threaten to pull out of the alliance.
Their scheme, though, made good sense when looked at from the point of view of the sugar barons in the government. Most of the ministers in the government had sugar factories and giving out those licences would have found a use for the molasses that were a byproduct and were now going waste. So they were not just benefiting their friends, they were benefiting themselves. It was quite an audacious scheme, considering it came from those who succeeded Sharad Pawar in government —Pawar’s policy for women gave the specific right to rural women to shut down liquor shops in the villages if more than half the women in a village complained of the men blowing up their earnings on liquor.
So, while the first Congress-NCP government had to withdraw that scheme on threat of being tumbled by their allies, they tried it again the second time round by bringing forward a proposal to sell country liquor from IMFL stores and vice-versa, that would necessitate the issue of more licences. They justified this again on grounds of excise duties and gave a new meaning to social engineering by not only trying to bring scotch and mosambi drinkers together in one bar but also uniting women, Gandhians and saffronists in one go, all of whom bitterly opposed the scheme – as did Minister for Excise Ganesh Naik who refused to sign the bill. Naik, of course, was no sugar baron and had nothing to gain from the new policy. But the fact that he was not kept informed about it shows how our illustrious law makers will legislate to benefit just themselves, never mind even their own.
I, therefore, see little difference between one set of politicians and the other. If the jhunka bhakar stalls are now being dismantled, it is only because the entire scheme was undertaken without finesse and the racket was obvious even to the naked eye. Those who have been in government longer know better how to cover their tracks. But they are both just playing pranks on the people whose interests they are meant to represent. And all that we get is one pack of clowns and another set of jokers. Laughing -- all the way to their banks.