Making a mockery of food security?

Making a mockery of food security?
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Highlights

Ever since Tamil Nadu’s Amma Unnavagam (‘Mother’s Kitchen’) became a runaway success, several State governments have been rolling out community kitchen programmes to provide affordable, wholesome meals for the working class.

Ever since Tamil Nadu's Amma Unnavagam ('Mother's Kitchen') became a runaway success, several State governments have been rolling out community kitchen programmes to provide affordable, wholesome meals for the working class.

The Amma Unnavagams were considered to have played an important role in bringing the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam back to power in Tamil Nadu following the Assembly elections of 2016.

But these kitchens are not mere tokens of populism. They are vital for securing the right to adequate food for a large section of the urban population.

These include those who are unable to provide for themselves (the elderly, disabled, destitute and sick) as well as a significant portion of the working poor (like rickshaw pullers, casual laborers and vegetable sellers) who find it difficult to access affordable, hygienic, and wholesome cooked meals.

By launching the Dal Bhat Yojana in August, 2011, Jharkhand became one among the very few States that made an effort to ensure food security for the urban footloose poor even before the Amma Unnavagam in Tamil Nadu made headlines.

Unfortunately, however, Jharkhand's Muhkya Mantri Dal Bhat Yojana is one of the schemes which many, including those within Jharkhand, know little about.

The Mukhya Mantri Dal Bhat Yojana (lentils and rice scheme) was launched on August 15, 2011, to provide a meal comprising of rice and lentils to those below the poverty line. Within two months of launching the scheme, soya bean and chickpea curry were also added to the menu.

Initially, the canteens were opened in only urban areas. However, by October 2 in the same year, canteens were opened in all block headquarters as well — raising the total to around 370 canteens across the rural and urban areas of the State.

The scheme was an ambitious programme of the government and had a lot of potential to address the growing hunger and food insecurity in the poverty-stricken and drought-prone state of Jharkhand.

However, unlike the Amma Unnavagam scheme of Tamil Nadu, the Dal Bhat Yojana turned out to be like a project concieved in haste.

The budget allocated to it was minuscule — less than Rs 15 crore for the entire State, with nearly 370 canteens.

Compare this to a budget of over Rs 100 crore for nearly 451 Amma canteens in Tamil Nadu.

Ever since the canteens began eight years ago, the menu has been the same — rice and dal (the only variation is that on some days, there could be chickpeas and on others, soya nuggets).

Although Dal Bhat canteens were supposed to provide black chickpeas for four days of the week, none of the canteens surveyed were serving them to the customers. The vegetables therefore consisted only of soya bean nuggets every day.

We found the dal to be watery most of the time and made out of rice starch, with only turmeric powder added to it. Rice grains are of average to poor quality but better cooked.

The scheme is poorly executed on various grounds, yet owing to the cheap price (Rs 5 a plate), it is appreciated among the extreme urban poor and destitute. The vegetable curry is mostly tasteless and contains only soyabeans and rotten potatoes or bottle gourds.

We found that half the centres did not use oil and spices at all. Moreover, in most canteens, there was no provision of safe drinking water facilities. Customers drank the same water which was used for washing hands and utensils.

Among customers, there are both locals as well as migrants. These groups leave early from their villages and find the easily available street food expensive and unhealthy.

Though street food offers a greater variety, Dal Bhat meals are much cheaper, easier to digest and comparatively healthy. Most customers have been regular visitors to the canteens during lunch hours for many years.

While a lot of the customers of the canteens are destitute, who can just about afford the meal for Rs 5, a large number are informal workers.

Many of them would be able to afford meals at dhabas or roadside eateries but they prefer to eat at the canteens because it allows them to save money.

Most of the customers told us they use the money saved from eating at the canteen for the commute while a few men admitted spending the extra amount on alcohol, bidis, cigarettes and paan.

Some customers said they spent the money saved on dinner since most canteens are closed during the night (Only two 'Adarsh Canteens' remain open till the night).

Unlike the Amma Unnavagam, where one finds the urban middle class, including those employed in the Information Technology sector paying regular visits, the soup kitchens of Jharkhand are rarely visited by anyone but the most vulnerable. This lack of diversity, however, is also part of the programme design, as it is meant for those 'living below the poverty line'.

Despite the poor quality of the meals, during a survey of around 2,000 beneficiaries at 10 canteens in Ranchi, we found that as many as 80 per cent of the respondents felt the quality of food was satisfactory. It can be safely said the customers have made peace with the quality of food they are served even if it is way below the acceptable level.

A small section of customers find the food fresh, hot and plain (less spicy) compared to the stale and spicy local food in other food outlets.

It was interesting to learn that a few customers (particularly the cycle rickshaw pullers) were aware of the locations of all ten Dal Bhat Kendras operating in Ranchi. So wherever they find work, they make it a point to eat lunch at the nearby Kendra.

Most people claimed to eat, not for the taste, but simply because the food is cheap and suits their pocket. At a dhaaba, the minimum price for a full meal would be Rs 30 whereas at the canteen, they can avail of a full meal for Rs 5 (Rs 10 for those with a larger appetite). Needless to say, it is their economic status that overpowers their taste buds.

While the overall situation of Jharkhand's Dal Bhat canteens appears dismal, there is considerable variation between the different canteens.

Some canteen operators make a genuine effort to serve a large number of people and provide a diverse and wholesome diet. However, there is little that can be done given the limitations of the policy itself.

The customers of the community kitchens, who are central to such food security intervention schemes, don't really have a say as far as the quality and quantity of food served to them are concerned. Whether it is the regular customers or occasional ones, all are at the mercy of the centre coordinators and their goodness.

We felt suffocated in the tiny gloomy stinking rooms of the Dal Bhat canteens or in congested smelly makeshift spaces right in the middle of busy marketplaces and had to force ourselves to eat the canteen food.

The Dal Bhat Yojana was meant to provide some food security to those struggling to make ends meet by providing them hygienic and nutritious meals. Yet, in most cases today, the meals are rarely hygienic or nutritious.

(Courtesy: Down to Earth)

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