Chandra Kumar, a migrant construction worker from Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh, along with his two children and wife, work in various construction sites in and around Arekere in South Bengaluru. They depended on the Indira Canteen in Ward 186 for the last five months for their two meals as the canteen provides food at subsidised rates. Today, they say, the quality and quantity have come down drastically. They have noticed this over the last one year.
Paramesh, a food delivery person who has his afternoon meals at the canteen daily after his hectic job, says that food was good earlier, but now, the quality is not great. “But what to do? We earn very little, and we can't afford to eat in Darshini hotels as it costs ₹55 for just rice and sambar there. In Indira canteen, it is just ₹10 a plate,” he said, while adding that the government has to give more importance to the canteen food quality and hygiene.
The canteen workers say quality has dipped because the contractors have started giving tasteless food as the popularity of the canteens has reduced, leading to losses. But the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) insists the canteen is running successfully.
How it began
The announcement of the setting up Indira Canteens aimed at the urban poor was made in March 2017, following the Amma canteen model in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. The then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in his Budget set aside ₹ 100 crore for these canteens, named after the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
On August 16, 2017, 101 Indira Canteens were inaugurated by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who had the first breakfast at one of them in Jayanagar. Later, the initiative was expanded to various parts of the State, especially to cater to the urban poor.
The Opposition alleges that things started to change when the BJP came to power. The canteens in the city are operating, but have not been given any boost, and slowly turning it into an unsuccessful model.
Today, there are 174 fixed Indira Canteens and 24 mobile canteens serving lakhs of citizens, especially those belonging to lower socio-economic groups, who depend on the canteens for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which are made available at a subsidised cost. After 101 canteens were initially opened in 2017, their popularity led to the expansion of the scheme to all the 198 wards.
Currently, Indira Canteens are providing breakfast at ₹5 and lunch and dinner at ₹10.
Karnataka government has been providing a 30% subsidy to the BBMP for operating Indira Canteens in different parts of the city.
The popularity of the canteen has come down, and hence, the BBMP is looking to shift the canteens which are in less populated areas to densely populated areas. An officer from BBMP involved with the project said on the condition of anonymity, “It is true that the canteen is not as popular now, that too after the COVID-19 pandemic. We are looking into various ways to make the canteen popular among people and target more people in the coming days.”
“One such measure we are going to bring is to relocate canteens located in lesser populated areas to densely populated areas such as bus stands, railway stations, market areas. For this, the State cabinet has also given the nod and the Urban Development Department (UDD) is conducting a survey,” the official added.
This measure is to make canteens economically viable and provide services to more people. Now, daily the Indira Canteen is providing around 60,000 to 70,000 people subsidised food, according to the civic body.
Officials said that in the starting first two years, food was distributed to an average 300 to 400 people in one canteen per day, providing three-time meals, but now it has reduced to 100 to 50 people.
Lack of budgetary allocation
Most canteens in the city are suffering due to what the opposition alleges the lack of interest by the present BJP government to fund the canteen.
In 2017-18 and 2018-2019, the then government allocated ₹100 crores and ₹145 crores respectively, but after the BJP government took over, in the past two years, no funds were allocated for the scheme. Hence, the civic body had to allot funds to the canteens from its own budget.
The BBMP had earmarked ₹60 crore in the 2022-23 Budget for running the Indira Canteens. While no decision has been taken to cease the canteen scheme as of now, the contractors said that they had not been paid for months.
In 2020, Mr. Siddaramaiah had written a letter to the then Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa to clear the contractors’ bills. He had alleged that the BJP was trying to scuttle the welfare scheme by not releasing funds on time, making it difficult for the local bodies to clear bills of contractors.
Further, the government has not started any new canteen in the last one year and what was sanctioned have not commenced operations.
Over to ISKCON
In May this year, the city’s civic body had decided to propose to the State government to hand over Indira Canteens in the city to ISKCON without calling for tenders, availing 4G exemption under the Karnataka Transparency in Public Procurements Act, 1999.
Presently three vendors — Chef Talk, Rewards and Adamya Chetana — are providing food at the canteens for ₹55.30 per three meals a day, which is borne by the civic body. Reasons for BBMP exploring handing over the canteens to ISKCON included quality issues and a dip in patronage. While the canteens were the mainstay for many during the lockdown period, over the past few months, the patronage has come down.
A former councillor from the Congress said, “Handing over the contract of supplying food to the canteens without tenders amounts to corruption. Now, the present government is not at all interested in Indira Canteen and they are making politics out of it and neglecting the canteen by not giving funds.”
But the proposal has not yet been finalised by the government, confirmed T. Jayaram Rajpura, BBMP Special Commissioner (Finance). Meanwhile, the BBMP has appointed marshals to each canteen to verify bills and as per that, these bill payments are done by BBMP.
Incidentally, it is ISKCON that is providing food to the 18,000-odd pourakarmikas in the BBMP areas. They complain about the food that is being supplied, said Nirmala M., president of BBMP Pourakarmikara Sangha. She said that the lack of onion, garlic and other masalas that is commonly used is missing in ISKCON’s food, making it “tasteless.”
The State government used the Indira canteens successfully during the pandemic in 2020. The State government provided free food at Indira Canteens to those who are dependent on daily wages for their livelihood.
Free breakfast was provided from 7.30 a.m. to 10 a.m.; lunch from 12.30 p.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner from 7.30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on all days, with the same canteen menu. The BBMP officials said that more than 3 lakh free meals a day were provided when food packets were given away at Indira Canteens during the lockdown.
Politics around canteen
BBMP sources said that the canteens were backed politically earlier. However, the BJP government now wants to do nothing with the Indira Canteens, neither be associated with it, close it down or change the name.
“The State Government has also not been providing any funds to keep the canteens going. The entire spend is being borne by the BBMP over the past few years and it only shows the politics by the BJP led government to close the scheme launched by the Congress, ” sources alleged.
Fracas over name
In August 202, BJP national general secretary C.T. Ravi called on Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai to rename Indira Canteens. He had tweeted calling for the canteens to be renamed “Annapoorneshwari Canteen” saying, “Don’t see any reason why Kannadigas should be reminded of the dark days of Emergency while they are having food.” The BJP manifesto for the 2018 Assembly polls included a promise to rename the canteen.
Mr. Ravi had earlier urged to close down the Indira Canteens, alleging irregularities. He said that ₹1 crore was spent on each Indira Canteen for Congress’s “political benefit.” “There should be accountability while spending taxpayers’ money. There is no one in the State who cannot afford food. It (canteen) was a conspiracy by the Congress to loot money in the name of the poor,” Mr. Ravi had said.
In 2019, the BJP Revenue minister R. Ashoka said changing the name of Indira Canteen to 'Maharshi Valmiki Anna Kuteera' was under the government's consideration. This was seen as an attempt by the saffron party to woo the Valmiki community.
App no longer available
A few months after the launch of Indira Canteen, BBMP developed a mobile app for the canteen, where the app provides the location of the five nearest canteens along with the menu of the day. Now, the mobile application is not available on the app store and the reason is unknown as the BBMP officials have not responded to queries.