Shiv Bhojan could be game-changer if Uddhav is watchful
In the first two days after the launch of the Shiv Bhojan programme on January 26, nearly 25,000 people across Maharashtra had availed of the subsidised lunch across 139 centres. And, reports say, the demand is galloping. This is one of the election promises that Uddhav Thackeray repeated in almost every election rally and pre-election interviews.
The Shiv Bhojan is as basic a meal as can be — a serving of chapatis, a vegetable, some rice and dal for ₹10 per thali or lunch-plate. At the BYL Nair and KEM hospitals in Mumbai — two of the 17 centres in the city where the programme has started — its patrons were delighted that homely food was made available at such a rock-bottom rate. The purpose is to reach basic healthy food to those who cannot afford to spend more than that or people in dire need of a home-like meal.
That such a section exists and should be provided for by the government is beyond debate. The Maharashtra government is spending at least ₹40 per plate as subsidy, which will attract criticism from the usual suspects; the programme will be labelled as populist, Thackeray will be accused of fiscal profligacy when the loan burden is a mind-numbing ₹4.7 lakh crore. This is to be expected — and ignored.
There was similar disparagement of subsidised meal schemes started in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the past.
At the current pilot level, the government will be spending a little over ₹2 crore a month. Should it be scaled up to a total of 640-650 outlets and about 1.25 lakh plates a day, the subsidy “burden” would still be around ₹125 crore, according to reports citing officials of food and civil supplies department. For perspective, that’s the amount the previous government allocated as the first instalment of the multi-crore ill-conceived Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train or the amount that ‘Tanhaji — The Unsung Warrior’ collected at the box office in the first eight days.
That Thackeray’s government was able to start the Shiv Bhojan programme within two months, despite the ministry being with the Nationalist Congress Party, and taste initial success points to some ground realities. The first is that a politician and a first-time administrator can crank up the system and produce outcomes within a time-frame if he/she has the will to make it happen. Thackeray should extend this work ethic to other areas beginning with Mumbai’s crumbling and dreadful road network; his party enjoys majority in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation anyway.
Secondly, despite Maharashtra being among the wealthiest Indian states and Mumbai being the 12th richest city in the world, the poverty rate in the state is in the region of 18% or close to the national average, according to official data. Despite high income levels and islands of wealth, there has not been balanced growth in the state or among various income groups.
Nearly 25% of the total poor are in Mumbai, Pune, Thane and Nagpur; Mumbai alone has half of this segment. Census 2011 showed that nearly one in every five Mumbaiites was officially in Below Poverty Line group. This city’s cheapest food is plain bread-butter at around ₹10 and vada-pav at ₹12 or 15. The need for wholesome subsidised food cannot be over-emphasised.
The peril lies in how Thackeray allows the programme to play out. If it becomes a Shiv Sena endeavour in most places, it could go the way of the one-rupee zunkha-bhakar scheme that the Sena-BJP government had started in the 1990s. Under the guise of providing government-subsidised food to Mumbai’s working class, the party’s local leaders grabbed prime locations on pavements and street-corners for the stalls.
The programme eventually faded away but the real estate remained with those who had the licences, including many Shiv Sainiks. Many of these stalls eventually turned into regular commercial Chinese food outlets or mini-grocery shops. A neat route to privatise public property in a space-starved city.
The Shiv Bhojan programme, when expanded, could have the participation of private players and organisations too. The zunka-bhakar fiasco must not be allowed to repeat. Uddhav Thackeray, hopefully, has better command than he did back then.