Thursday, May 30, 2013


Populist schemes like distributing food grains for a rupee per kg are considered the benchmark for the credentials of governments at the Center as well in the states for their "love" and "commitment" to the common man who is synonymous with poverty and destitution in this "Maha" country! Look at the tearing hurry with which the present government in Delhi (GoI) is trying to push through a half baked, ill conceives and an unworkable food security bill in the Parliament solely for garnering votes from the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this monstrous scheme without proper discussion among the law makers regarding the logistics, infrastructure and financial resources needed! This is all the more reprehensible considering that the existing dilapidated and leaky Public Distribution System (PDS), despite its existence for more than 5 decades  has not made any dent on the poverty level among the vulnerable segments of the population.

It is a tragedy of Himalayan proportion that the "rulers" in this country always look for scapegoats for all their failures and the story of PDS is also the same. While the Center blames the states for the ills of the program, States in turn point an accusing finger to Center for lack of support from it fr their endeavor. Caught in between are the targeted beneficiaries who are deprived of their legitimate share of food grains shown in the "account" books. According to independent observers the pilferage of grains from the government granaries is as high as 65% in some states and surprisingly the planning commission does not seem to be too much worried about this aspect. Now comes the Rs1-2 per kg food grain distribution program with the planners having hazy idea regarding the implementation of this massive dole out program. This only highlights the fact that all government schemes look good on paper but suffer from bad implementation because of the lax attitude of the bureaucracy that runs these programs. Imagine how hurting it would be for the economy of this country when almost Rs 1.26 lakh crore is spent on this grandiose scheme which is unlikely to succeed in its objectives and instead end up as a "rewarding" scheme for thousands of politicians, bureaucrats and criminals!

The recent launching of another populist scheme in Tamil Nadu at Chennai that is supposed to help low income group of people get cheap food preparations in low cost vending kiosks is indeed timely. In theory it is a good scheme because the run away prices of restaurant foods are excluding a substantial segment of the population in the city from the "eating out" pleasure and the most vulnerable people like workers, students and many service providers are hard hit by the hyper inflation of hotel food prices. While government does not want or is not able to rein in the high profit hotel industry, the new scheme seems to be a soft option. While concept wise it may be a good attempt how far logistically it is practical remains to be seen.

According to the media reports Chennai Civic Corporation is setting up a series of low cost canteens across this City to be christened Amma Canteens and residents of all the wards will have access to these low cost eateries offering some of the popular dishes at prices which are ridiculously low making one wonder who is subsidizing these foods. These eateries are expected to sell idlis ar Re 1 per piece while other preparations like sambar rice, curd rice etc priced at Rs-3-5 per serving. It appears the Corporation has completed the process of identifying 127 buildings in various wards, where these canteens will be located to supplement 73 such eateries already commissioned earlier. Eventually there would be 200 such Amma Canteens, one for each ward. The Corporation's ambitious project is claimed to be targeted at providing healthy food at reasonable prices to residents living in slums, daily laborers, drivers, load-men and migrant workers which is indeed laudable.

If the project officials are to be believed about 2,400 women belonging to self-help groups (SHG) in the city would take up the responsibility of cooking, serving and managing the canteens and these women are being trained for this task. The Corporation claims that since its beginning in February this year the Amma Canteens already operating in various wards have served more than 20 lakh idlis, 5 lakh sambar rice dishes and more than 3 lakh curd rice dishes.Though no evaluation of the relevance, need and response of the customers has yet been done, from the volume of business achieved it appears to be popular. Quality and safety are the main criteria that will decide whether this venture can thrive and serve the purpose for which it is set up.

Some of the critical issue that will confront the organizers include the sustainability of the scheme, its continued funding, availability of right personnel for management, maintaining quality and ensuring safety of the preparations served in these places. Since it has Corporation blessings, there would be nagging suspicion that food safety standards may not be strictly enforced and such a situation can be dangerous for the customers in the long run.Government must ensure that safety of food served is not compromised under any circumstances. Another issue which will crop up is whether one canteen per ward would be adequate to meet the need of the residents there and if the food quality is on par with that sold in private restaurants these canteens may become over crowded inviting severe management problem. Restricting the access to customers other than low income group may not be practical and the state government may be left with no option but expand this operation manifold and spread the scheme in other major towns in the state.

A similar venture in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala being managed by the Prison authorities is reported to be doing extremely well though its modus operadi is slightly different. Another difference is that the Kerala venture does not sell the products made by prison inmates at such low prices and it is self supporting project. Besides the range of foods sold by them is much more diverse compared to Chennai project and their sale model is based on mobile vans which distribute the fresh preparation in different parts of that city. But the fact still remains that such type of projects are indeed welcome to give relief to the much harassed public who are continuously being milked by the organized hotel industry remorselessly!  


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