Karnataka's Indira canteens starved of funds

Karnataka’s Indira Canteens, which offer subsidised meals to the urban poor, are staring at closure owing to the lack of budgetary allocations by the BJP government.

Published : Apr 28, 2021 06:00 IST

At an Indira Canteen  in Bengaluru on April 4, 2020, during the nationwide lockdown.

At an Indira Canteen in Bengaluru on April 4, 2020, during the nationwide lockdown.

Every day, Azam Ahmed, a young man in his twenties, stops at the Pulakeshinagar Ward Indira Canteen for breakfast on his way to the butcher shop where he works as an assistant. His job is to slaughter and clean chickens before the senior butcher chops them according to the customer’s requirements. For this work, Azam, who has studied up to the fifth standard and lives in a nearby slum, is paid Rs.200 a day apart from a few pieces of chicken when he finishes work late in the evening.

On April 11, a Sunday, Azam was having a breakfast of khara bath and kesari bath at the canteen, which is located on Moore Road, when he spoke to Frontline . He said: “This same meal will cost me Rs.40 at the cheapest darshini (neighbourhood south Indian cuisine restaurant) which I can’t afford. Earlier, an idli also used to be part of breakfast but that was stopped sometime last year.”

While the quantity of the meal could not be described as generous, it was a steal at Rs.5. The cashier, who was busy collecting shiny 5-rupee coins, said that 120-130 customers have breakfast and lunch at this Indira Canteen every day while around 30 people regularly have dinner. Lunch and dinner cost Rs.10 apiece.

At the canteen, some 10 other men and a couple of women were also having the same meal spread around the makeshift tables in the canteen’s small compound. The women were maids on their way to work, and the men were construction labourers, mechanics or grocery shop assistants. There was even a teenager who had just finished delivering newspapers.

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The scene was similar later in the day at the Vasanth Nagar Ward Indira Canteen located on Queen’s Road. Two construction labourers from Odisha were having rice and sambar for dinner. Asked whether the meal was sufficient after a hard day’s work, Tapas, one of the workers, said: “Sometimes we cook our meals and eat well but often we come here as the food is cheap and healthy even if it doesn’t fill us up completely.”

Each Indira Canteen is basic, consisting of a single-room structure with a picture of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the wall facing the road. There is no kitchen; the food is cooked in central kitchens by contractors and transported to each canteen where it is ladled out by two servers.

Launch and expansion

Modelled after the Amma canteens of Tamil Nadu, Indira Canteens were launched in Bengaluru on August 16, 2017, during the tenure of former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress. He had then said that the aim behind the subsidised meal scheme was to address malnutrition among city residents and that it was part of a wider array of schemes, including Anna Bhagya, to provide food security for all residents of Karnataka. During the launch he said: “In Bengaluru, 28 per cent of children under five, 13 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men are underweight. That is why this scheme is being started.”

Now, the canteens that are patronised by thousands of urban poor in Bengaluru and in other urban centres of Karnataka are staring at imminent closure owing to a lack of funds from the incumbent B.S. Yediyurappa-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

While 101 canteens were initially opened in Bengaluru in 2017, their immediate popularity led to the expansion of the scheme to all the 198 wards under the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). Subsequently, Indira Canteens were opened in other towns and cities in the State.

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In the first two years of the scheme (2017-18 and 2018-2019), budgetary allocations of Rs.100 crore and Rs.145 crore respectively were made for it, but trouble began from the third year when no allocation was made. In the past two years, under the BJP government, no funds were allocated for the scheme.

While no decision has been taken to cease the scheme, the lack of any budgetary allocation shows that the government is not interested in continuing with it.

Over the past year alone, four Indira Canteens were shut in Bengaluru, while there have been reports in the media that several others are not open through the week. Besides, there have been complaints that the quality of meals has deteriorated and while this may be a subjective aspect, it is a fact that the quantity of food being provided has reduced.

According to an older menu that is still displayed at the Pulakeshinagar Ward Indira Canteen, idlis were part of the breakfast, while lunch and dinner consisted of rice and sambar along with another rice item such as curd rice, tomato bath, or vangi bath. From October last year idlis have not been part of the menu while lunch and dinner consist of only rice and sambar.

According to a report published in the Kannada newspaper Prajavani on April 4, the situation is similar in other parts of Karnataka as well where several Indira Canteens that were sanctioned have not commenced operations, while the ones that are operational are on the verge of closure.

When the Indira Canteen scheme was launched, each meal that was sold for Rs.10 actually cost Rs.32 to make, and the State government paid the difference to the canteen contractor.

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The making price of each meal was reduced in August last year when tenders were sought again and was fixed at Rs.30.30. While Rs.20.30 is borne by the State exchequer, Rs.10 is recovered from the customer.

According to BBMP sources, in the first two years of the scheme, 2.3 lakh meals a day were served at the canteens in Bengaluru. More than 3 lakh free meals a day were provided when food packets were given away at Indira Canteens during the strictest phase of the COVID-19 lockdown in March and April last year.

With the return of payment for the meal, the number of meals served a day stabilised around 1.8 lakh over the past year.

Unpaid dues to contractors

In Bengaluru, meal contractors such as ChefTalk, Rewards and Adamya Chetana said that they had not been paid for months, with the dues now totalling a little more than Rs.45 crore. In a memorandum submitted to the BBMP in March, the food contractors stated that if the dues were not cleared soon, “we will be forced to stop the supply of meals to Indira Canteens”. Govinda B. Poojary of ChefTalk, the contractor supplying food in the west and south zones of BBMP in Bengaluru, said: “We haven’t been paid our dues since May 2020.”

The contractors said that they had been managing the situation by using their own savings and resorting to bank overdrafts to purchase daily provisions while hoping that the BBMP would clear their dues soon. A source in the BBMP said the State government owed the BBMP Rs.225 crore for the scheme over the past three years.

The State government’s reasoning that it does not have “sufficient funds” during the pandemic for this scheme is not borne out when one sees that the State’s capital expenditure for 2021-22 is pegged at almost Rs.2.5 lakh crore. An allocation of around Rs.200 crore for the scheme will hardly cause a dent in this figure. The government’s argument is also not borne out when one sees that it has been generously doling out money to caste associations in the past year with an intention to woo voters belonging to specific caste groups. For instance, the newly formed Veerashaiva-Lingayat Development Corporation was granted Rs.500 crore, while the Maratha Development Board was provided with Rs.50 crore.

A hard-hitting editorial in the Kannada newspaper Vartha Bharathi published on April 6 made this point bluntly, stating: “It is laughable when the government states that it does not have sufficient funds for Indira Canteens where the poor are able to afford a meal, when it is granting crores of rupees for mathas and temples.”

According to sources within the BJP, the real reason for the stinginess on the part of the government is that the party cannot be seen endorsing something that carries the name of Indira Gandhi, although Yediyurappa himself had stated that there was no proposal before the government to change the name of the scheme.

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Speaking to Frontline , Vinay Sreenivasa, a human rights lawyer working with Alternative Law Forum, said: “Tackling as basic a need as hunger needs to be top priority for the government. Why are Indira Canteens closing for the lack of funds? If the Chief Minister wants to change the name of the scheme, let him do it. Why let people go hungry for petty political gains?”

At a time when the BJP in the State is riven by factionalism and the party is lurching from one crisis to the other, there is also a fear that the credit for this popular scheme will continue to be cornered by the Congress, and more specifically, Siddaramaiah, the current Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly.

Siddaramaiah has been constantly demanding that funds for the Indira Canteen scheme be sanctioned. In a recent statement to mediapersons, he said: “Indira Canteens can be run if Rs.200 crore is sanctioned annually, but the BJP government does not want to support this scheme as it will benefit the poor.”

With the scheme staring at its impending closure, urban poor such as Azam and Tapas may soon have to look at alternative sources for their daily meals.

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