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Are the Congress’s Indira Canteens too little, too cold a serving in Karnataka?

Everyone agrees that reaching food to the hungry is one of the basic responsibilities of a government. But the Congress’ timing with launching a populist scheme may not translate to much in the coming assembly election.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2017 18:29 IST
Sharanya Gopinathan
Sharanya Gopinathan
Indira Canteens,Siddaramaiah,Karnataka assembly elections
The newly launched Indira Canteens are undeniably a leaf from late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s book. Congress hopes to electorally gain as well as Jayalalithaa did from it back in 2013.

To spice things up initially, there was that Freudian slip. “Every citizen of Karnataka under the Siddaramaiah government should feel he won’t go hungry. That is the vision of the Amma... Indira Canteen.”

Clearly, even Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi couldn’t forget the original recipe for the new Indira Canteens launched on August 16 in Bengaluru. In his inaugural address at the Jayanagar outlet, he accidentally mentioned the Amma Canteens in Tamil Nadu instead of Namma Canteens, the official name of the much-hyped project. More widely known as Indira Canteens, they provide food to the city’s urban poor at extremely affordable rates.

There is no quarrel about the main ingredient: the idea is poached from the late TN chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s hugely popular, populist and successful Amma Canteens. Populist or not, everyone agrees that reaching food to the hungry is one of the basic responsibilities of a government.

Like their Tamil Nadu counterparts, Indira Canteens are mandated to provide hygienic, nutritious food such as idlis and rice dishes with the usual accompaniments to the urban poor; prices are as low as Rs 5 for breakfast and Rs 10 for lunch and dinner. Designed by a former Taj Group chef, the rotational menu has 25 items, which includes brinjal rice, sambar rice, pongal, khara bath, methi rice, and kesari bath as the lone sweet item.

Fast food, fast project

Launched under a tight deadline by the Congress government a day after Independence Day, there are currently 101 canteens running in Bengaluru, and 97 more set to be opened on Gandhi Jayanti on October 2. The goal is to have one in each of the 198 wards in the city, serving three meals a day to 300 to 400 people per meal. The government’s subsidy is reportedly around Rs 32 across three meals that a citizen may eat per day.

With the project being rushed through, there have been some teething problems. Of the 27 centralised kitchens supposed to serve the canteens, only two are up and running. Consequently, delays abound at the canteens, leaving them short of food and tempers. And in the rush to launch, it turns out that they are currently operating without food safety licenses. Mayor G Padmavathi of the Congress party says that the project was completed, such as it is, on a very tight deadline of just 60 days.

Playing politics with food

So why the rush? Apparently it was timed to duck the model code of conduct, which bars political parties from undertaking public works six months before elections to negate vote inducement. Elections to the Karnataka Assembly are scheduled for April 2018. Chief minister Siddaramaiah reportedly allotted a budget of Rs 100 crore in March for the canteens and, according to Citizen Matters, their operational cost will go up to Rs 10 crore a month.

It is not just the ruling Congress that is wooing the electorate through its stomach. A fortnight before the launch of Indira Canteens, Janata Dal (S) MLA TA Saravana started his own self-financed Namma Appaji Canteen in Hanumanthanagar in honour of party stalwart Deve Gowda. Those who have checked it out vouch for its superior fare that also includes the iconic ragi mudde plus tea or coffee at a mere Rs 3.

Meanwhile, as Bengalureans satiate their hunger and curiosity at the Indira Canteens, they are aware of the government‘s hopes of electoral gains that social security measures like Amma Canteens brought Jayalalithaa. Back in 2013, the late chief minister had started 200 food courts (or Amma unavagams) in Chennai, followed by 10 canteens in each of the eight municipal corporations in Tamil Nadu, all staffed by women’s self-help groups . Unlike Indira Canteens, the food is prepared onsite and is cheaper there: an idli for Rs 1, curd rice for Rs 3 and sambar rice for Rs 5. Jayalalithaa’s truly revolutionary project served nearly 10 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population, and 20 percent of the BPL population in Chennai. A significant percentage eats at the canteens five or even six days a week. These canteens were one of Jayalalithaa’s pet projects, and she ensured that they were always well supported and run. They remain a huge part of her legacy, one she’s most fondly remembered for.

But will the Amma magic work in Karnataka? The timing is unabashed. As filmmaker Chaitanya KH observes, governments usually launch new welfare schemes in the initial and final years of their term (the first so that the people see immediate results upon having voted the party, and the latter to remind voters to favour them again). But the Congress may have done too little too late for this to translate into votes next year.

People wait to eat at a newly launched canteen in Bengaluru. Food here goes for as cheap as Rs 5 for breakfast, and Rs 10 for lunch and dinner.

Supriya Chowdhury, an urban policy researcher based in Bengaluru, points out that in Tamil Nadu, the Amma canteens were not a standalone project. They were part of a complete package of poverty alleviation programs on several fronts, including rural poverty. This included giving free rice to families, laptops and bicycles to schoolgirls, and labour-saving kitchen gadgets and machines to women. Chowdhury says, “The Indira Canteens are clearly a standalone project, like a last-minute guess [by the Congress] of what can get votes. It’s also come along too late to gain any real political purchase, and the Karnataka voter is too sophisticated not to see that this is just a populist standalone project, unlike Tamil Nadu’s. It would be naive of the party to think that one single political measure could get votes.”

Does Bengaluru need them?

S Rajendran, professor of Economics at Periyar University in Tamil Nadu, agrees that this is clearly a politically motivated rather than a poverty-alleviating project. “Urban workers in places like Bengaluru are comparatively prosperous and they earn enough to eat for the day. Such a project should really be aimed at those living below poverty line (BPL) in areas that face real poverty, and to those denied access to ration cards due to various reasons. There’s no doubt that Karnataka needs such a programme: there are many more people living BPL in Hubbali and Dharwad, not in Bengaluru and Mangaluru.”

The weekly menu at Indira Canteens can be accessed through its app.

On the other hand, urban poverty poses uniquely different challenges than rural poverty. Kala Sreedharan, researcher in urban studies, points out, “Urban poverty can be more difficult to tackle than rural poverty, because [the sufferers] have no food security. In rural areas, people can grow and eat their own food. These canteens will really help alleviate the food insecurity of Bengaluru’s urban poor.”

Something sweet, something salty

But despite criticisms of unimaginative populism and electoral politics, many agree that this remains a worthy project: there’s little to be said against providing food to the poor and hungry. As Chandan Gowda, columnist, professor and Kannada playwright, points out, it isn’t really a handout: people still have to pay for the food, albeit at highly subsidised rates.

At present, the canteens across the city now serve about 300 customers per meal. There’s a palpable excitement, with people checking with each other if they’ve visited their local canteen, having their repast under a gigantic image of the eponymous prime minister. The structures were pre-fabricated off-site under a collaboration of talent from India, Greece, Poland, Britain and Ireland, all from KEF Infra. The structures are small, elegant and designed to accommodate a moving crowd, with entrances and exits carefully placed opposite each other, but it’s questionable if they can, at one go, accommodate the maximum capacity of 400 people.

“I tried to go to the Indira Hotel [sic] yesterday but it was too crowded. I waited for two hours in RT Nagar but then they told us they had run out of food. I wanted to try the sambar rice; if it was tasty it could be a daily lunch option for me,” said Shiva, a driver based in Vasanthnagar.

While some argue that the canteens are more needed in rural areas, others say it is the urban poor who will be better serviced by such initiatives since, unlike their rural counterparts, they can’t grow their own food.

But there are those who are grateful for a cheap and decent meal when a dish at a darshini, the generic name for a local fast food outlet, can cost at least four times that.

Citizen’s protests and concerns

In the midst of all the goodwill, there are the party-poopers. Various resident welfare associations (RWAs) have not been able to stomach the location of the canteens in their backyards, citing nuisance and garbage. The RWA of Jayanagar 9th Block East protested the felling of trees to host a canteen, while Tata Nagar residents’ heartburn was that the one in their ward was located in a park. Sarakki denizens, meanwhile, could not digest the quantities of wet waste generated by the canteens saying they were worried over improper disposal. While these are legitimate complaints, they are, as Gowda says, more managerial problems than opposition to the canteens themselves.

Kshitij Urs at Action Aid reflects that the objections could have class overtones. “Hunger is a pressing issue. It’s a lame and classist excuse to say the government doesn’t have money earmarked to tackle food insecurity and poverty when so much more is allocated for its own PR campaigns.”

It may be too early to tell if the Indira Canteens will bring the Congress the returns in the upcoming Assembly elections. But it is safe to say they are a step towards ensuring some level of food security in Bengaluru. Besides, as one customer Manjunath R puts it, “They even serve pickles and three chutneys.”

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Sep 02, 2017 10:45 IST