The subsidy in the Parliament canteen, whose cut-price menu includes a mutton curry at just Rs 20, is not going away despite calls from some lawmakers for stopping it.
At least, that’s what the House food management committee’s chairperson Janarthan Reddy believes.
“Why should I victimise the staff and security personnel working in Parliament? Kisike pet pe laath nehi marni chahiye (We shouldn’t snatch food away from the mouths of others),” Reddy told Hindustan Times.
To defend his stand, Reddy dished out an “internal survey” conducted by the committee which shows that a majority of people eating at the canteen are parliamentary staff and security personnel.
“The major share (when parliament is in recess) – 42% - is consumed by parliamentary staff and security guys. If we hike the prices, these people will not be able to afford the Parliament canteen’s food,” said the Telangana Rashtra Samithi MP.
The survey showed parliamentarians and media personnel consume the same amount of food – 9% - at the canteen when Parliament is in session. When the House is not in session, the MPs’ share is 3% while that of the media is 2%.
"During a session, around 4,500 people eat at Parliament," Reddy said.
When the House is in session, only around 250 MPs have lunch at the canteen while others prefer to return to their residences, mostly located a stone’s throw from the Parliament, to have home-cooked food, he said.
The combined strength of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha is around 800. An MP can have a three-course lunch at the canteen for Rs 38.
A recent query under the Right To Information Act revealed that during the past five years, the Parliament canteen, run by the Northern Railways catering service, received a total subsidy of Rs 60.7 crore.
Reddy acknowledged that this subsidy goes up by almost Rs 3 crore every year because of spiralling prices.
The food subsidy has snowballed into a major controversy.
Biju Janata Dal MP Baijayant “Jay” Panda started a campaign to stop the subsidy for the canteen. The parliamentarian from Odisha has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan that MPs should renounce the subsidy in line with the government’s appeal to well-off citizens to voluntarily surrender their subsidised cooking gas cylinders so that the poor can benefit.
Reddy insisted that dual pricing – one set of rates for MPs and the media and another for parliamentary staff – is not possible.
“How can we compare the Parliament canteen with the restaurants of central Delhi? There, they have lavish arrangements. Here, we serve only basic food,” he said.
The survey done by the food management committee, however, has raised eyebrows.
Its findings are based only on the second leg of the last budget session and the interim period between that session and the monsoon session.
“This certainly can’t be a trend as it does not have data over a large period of time. Also, there is little clarity on how they analysed the data,” said a senior parliament staff member.
Parliamentarians pay just Rs 25 for fried fish with chips, Rs 18 for mutton cutlet and a skimpy Rs 5 for a plate of boiled vegetables at the canteen, according to the reply provided to the query under the RTI Act. For a bowl of vegetable stew costing Rs 4, a total of Rs 41.25 has to be spent to buy the ingredients, meaning the dish comes at a 90% subsidised rate.
For a non-vegetarian meal, items are procured at Rs 99.05 but the dish is served to MPs at Rs 33. Besides, the canteen’s rates have not been revised since December 2010.