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HT Spotlight: Capt Amarinder’s community kitchens promise in Punjab falls short

Big talk, baby steps: Though state-run eateries serve subsidised food to people at different locations daily, there are problems of fund constraints and contractors who fail to maintain quality of food

punjab Updated: May 22, 2018 09:54 IST
HT Correspondents
An elderly couple having food at Sarab Sanjhi Rasoi on the Guru Nanak Dev Hospital premises in Amritsar.
An elderly couple having food at Sarab Sanjhi Rasoi on the Guru Nanak Dev Hospital premises in Amritsar.(Sameer Sehgal/HT)

When the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government rolled out community kitchens around the same time last year, it was widely seen as a laudable welfare programme.

Modelled on the hugely popular “Amma” canteens in Tamil Nadu and “Ahaar” centres in Orissa, the aim of these low-cost community kitchens, being run by the District Red Cross Societies (DRCSs), was to provide affordable meal to the poor and homeless.

The Congress had, in its election manifesto, promised to set up “Sasti Roti” outlets in all district and sub-divisional headquarters to serve food at ₹5 per meal, but it has fallen way short of it.

Though these state-run eateries serve subsidised food to people whose number ranges from 80 to 300 for different locations daily, there are problems, in particular fund constraints and erratic food contractors, aplenty.

As most of these facilities are at district headquarters, the choice of location such as DRCS office or civil hospital has limited the outreach – the number of beneficiaries has even dwindled at some of the existing ones.

The basic objective of feeding the hungry by reaching out to more and more poor, migrant labourers and homeless is not being met. Meal cost is more than the promised price.

And, the state authorities need to get their act together, put the programme on track and increase their number to significantly improve coverage for effective implementation and meet the basic objective of the scheme.

Funds a problem in Ludhiana

Named as “Sadi Rasoi”, the community kitchen is being run by NGO Ann Jal Sewa Trust in the Red Cross building on Brown Road with no monetary help from the state government.

The NGO, which runs similar community kitchens in Jagraon and Khanna sub-divisions, besides Jalandhar and Gurdaspur districts, has started facing difficulties. While it gets ₹6 per plate from the deputy commissioner’s office in other two districts, the city administration has provided space and utensils.

“We want to expand the facility to cover more areas, but have not been able to do so. There is no help from the government. No financial assistance is being given,” says trust president Shiv Ram Saroay, adding: “When the government made the promise or started the programme, it should have thought of setting up a separate fund for these.”

Besides serving food to people in community kitchen at ₹10 per plate, it also gives free food to patients and visitors at the Ludhiana civil hospital. Rickshaw-puller Kewal Singh finds concept good, but wants more such community kitchens in other parts of the city. “Those who need it the most cannot come to this place on a daily basis,” he says. The NGO, which has 30 employees, eight of them here, is running the facility from donations it receives. At times, their dues cross ₹1 lakh. Though it has been managing so far, things have not been easy.

Few takers in Bathinda

Despite a good start, the scheme has gone awry in the district. The number of beneficiaries served low-cost food at the District Red Cross Society building has dropped after the authorities shifted the kitchen to the civil hospital about a month ago.

“About 200 persons, mostly visitors to the district administrative complex and courts, were having food provided under the ‘Sasti Rasoi’ scheme at the society building earlier, but their number has seen a big drop ever since the cooking venue was shifted,” says community kitchen in-charge Anita. The subsidised food facility, which provides four chapattis and dal for ₹10, gets only about 80 people on an average daily.

Cook Parminder Kaur says people used to get freshly cooked food as the kitchen was located in the building itself. “Now food is cooked in the civil hospital and then brought to the Red Cross building,” she says.

Similar “Sasti Rasoi” facilities started at Goniana and Bhucho are not operational. “Fresh tenders will be floated,” said an official.

However, Bathinda deputy commissioner Diprava Lakra sees no reason to be alarmed. “When food was being cooked in the Red Cross building, people with capacity to pay also used to get benefit but only needy people are availing the service now,” he said on the drop in numbers.

Let down by contractors in Amritsar

Disappointed by private contractors who failed to maintain the quality of food, the district administration has given task of running the community kitchen to NGO Sarab Sanjhi Rasoi Society.

The NGO is serving affordable meals to the poor and homeless at Guru Nanak Dev Hospital and district civil hospital and another stall at court complex will be opened soon. Randhir Singh, an official of the District Red Cross Society, said the programme is finally on track. The NGO headed by Dr Manjinder Singh, a private medical practitioner, has been given space at Guru Nanak Dev Hospital, the largest in the Majha region, for preparing food in addition to two vehicles and ingredients. The administration will also provide a chapatti-making machine to the society soon.

It has been running losses from the time the task was assigned in the first week of March, but is determined to carry on with contribution from its members. “In March, we faced a loss of ₹22,000 which exceeded to ₹40,000 next month, but we are managing,” said Dr Singh.

Lip-smacking fare for a few in Jalandhar

Started on May 16 last year, Sanjhi Rasoi, which is being run at the civil hospital, has been serving food to about 275 persons on an average daily.

Being operated by the Ann Jal Sewa Trust, a Ludhiana-based NGO, the community kitchen provides hygienically prepared food that actually costs ₹22 per plate for ₹10 on all seven days a week. There is different menu everyday with special fare of “poori-aloo” and “chana” on Sundays with “halwa”.

To raise funds for running the operations, the NGO has launched a scheme for people to celebrate occasions such as birthdays at the eatery where it provides a cake and specially cooked food on demand for a few extra bucks. Deputy commissioner Varinder Kumar Sharma has asked the officials to regularly keep a check on the quality of food. “People need to be more cooperative to ensure its smooth functioning,” he said. The society is further planning to add “khichdi” and “daliya” in menu for patients at the hospital.

Funds needed to set up kitchens in Patiala

In chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh’s hometown, the community kitchen, “Rehmat-Sanjhi Rasoi”, is being run no profit, no loss basis since June 1, 2017, without any grant from the state government or the district administration.

The District Red Cross Society has engaged a private contractor to provide food. “Besides subsidised food at the rate of ₹12 per diet, we also offer food items priced up to ₹100 for other customers with paying capacity. What we earn goes into expenses, including labour and cooking cost. Also, 6% goods and services tax (GST) is extra burden as we are not revering it from customers,” says kitchen contractor Hari Ram.

Red Cross Society secretary Dr Pritpal Singh Sidhu said Sanjhi Rasoi was running successfully on financially sustainable model. “We are getting huge response from students and daily wagers. If government provides adequate funds, we will set up similar kitchens at the sub-divisional level and one more in Patiala,” he said.