Plate of woes for Kerala’s Janakeeya Hotels

Stoppage of subsidy, delay in payment of subsidy dues, falling patronage, price rise and doubts over feasibility of diversification have all put the Janakeeya Hotels run by Kudumbashree in a fix. R.K. Roshni reports

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:07 pm IST

Published - October 05, 2023 07:41 pm IST

Kudumbasree workers  packing   meals at a Kudumbashree Janakeeya Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram.

Kudumbasree workers packing meals at a Kudumbashree Janakeeya Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

It is just before noon on what is another rainy day in Kerala’s capital on Tuesday. The leaden sky seems to stretch over the horizon, the downpour unrelenting. Low-lying roads are soon waterlogged, the vehicles leaving swirling eddies in their wake. 

Opposite SMV Government Model Higher Secondary School at Overbridge on the arterial MG Road, rainwater from the building roofs gushes down a bylane lined with shops and offices. In this lane is located Ananthapuri Cafe, the first Janakeeya Hotel (people’s hotel) opened in the city by Kudumbashree, the State’s poverty alleviation and women empowerment mission, back in April 2020. 

In a small queue at the hotel entrance, customers in raincoats or holding umbrellas await their turn for lunch parcels, or meals as they are referred to. 

Sanal Kumar, an employee of the State Health department, waits on a two-wheeler for his wife to buy three meals. The couple buy food from the Janakeeya Hotel if they are on their way to a hospital or have some urgent work. “At ₹30, the lunch here is affordable. In other places, it costs upwards of ₹80. Also, the Janakeeya Hotel serves tasty food without additives.” 

Also read: Amid rising prices and mounting dues, Janakeeya hotels fight for survival

A couple of students stuff the parcels in their backpack before rushing off into the rain. “It’s time for our class. One thing we can vouch for is, the food is good,” says one of the girls. 

Past 2 p.m., people are still trickling in. A group of youngsters stops by, looking for something warm to beat the chill from the rain that has drenched them head to toe. The women running the hotel allow them to sit at a table and tuck into the last of the day’s dishes. 

The hotel itself is very basic, with two rooms and a kitchen. This is where Sarojam K., president of Ananthapuri Cafe, and Sreedevi, its secretary, lead their Kudumbashree unit of 10 members as they cook and serve nearly 400 to 500 meals a day, each going for ₹30 (for dine-in) or ₹35 (for parcel). 

“Earlier, we would require two sacks of rice, 50-kg each, daily. For the past month-and-a-half, we have needed just one,” says Sarojam as she counts the meal coupons.

The fall is attributed to a drop in patronage ever since the Kudumbashree decided to cut the subsidy of ₹10 provided by it on each meal. Students, salespersons, and labourres are the most affected by the hike in the price of meals, she says. 

Meals at a Kudumbasree Janakeeya Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram.

Meals at a Kudumbasree Janakeeya Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

It was in the 2020 State Budget that the then Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac proposed the opening of 1,000 Janakeeya Hotels as part of the Hunger-Free Kerala programme. 

Envisaged as Kudumbashree enterprises, these hotels were to provide affordable food to the public on the lines of a model first implemented in Alappuzha district. Each meal was to cost ₹25, with a subsidy of ₹5. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, the government decided to make the meals cheaper at ₹20 and hiked the subsidy to ₹10. Packed lunches or parcels were available for ₹25. 

The Janakeeya Hotels were also an evolution of the community kitchens that were started to feed the people during the pandemic but soon they began to cost local bodies a pretty penny. 

The number of Janakeeya Hotels in the State went up over the next two years to reach 1,198 in 2022. Arranging a building for the hotels or payment of rent for the same was the responsibility of the local bodies. They were to pay electricity and water charges too. 

People queue up to buy meals at a Kudumbashree Janakeeya Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram.

People queue up to buy meals at a Kudumbashree Janakeeya Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

But the hotels faced several hiccups. Government subsidies were delayed from the start and the dues accumulated for over a year in many cases. In August this year came the order discontinuing the subsidy. 

“We used to sell 900 to 1,000-odd meals a day. It is half that number now. Ten of us run the hotel. We have employed four workers too. Only if we get more customers can each of us get some income,”  says Sarojam.

Money is owed for purchase of vegetables, provisions, and even packing paper, she says. “Prices of most things are going north. We have a subsidy due for 11 months. If we were to get it in bulk, we could repay our debts.” 

A Kudumbashree official who does not wish to be identified admits to receiving complaints from some places about a dip in patronage but adds that only subsidy from December 2022 is pending for districts other than Pathanamthitta. 

This, however, is disputed by Jeena Chandran who was asked to move from the building where she ran her Janakeeya Hotel after she went public with complaints of pending subsidy. “I got the subsidy for last September only recently. Before that, I received pending subsidy for two months in June this year. Subsidy for almost 10 months, until I stopped opening the hotel in July, is still pending.” 

Jeena says the Kudumbashree women have been forced to speak out. “We had given representations to the Chief Minister and the Ministers for Finance and Local Self-Government too. Only after that was money sanctioned, but in instalments.” 

Jeena ran the hotel along with three other Kudumbashree women and six employees at DPI Junction near Vazhuthacaud, but has been looking for an alternative location since its closure in July. “The Kudumbashree district and State missions are still considerate towards us. It is the CDS — Community Development Society, the local government-level apex body of Kudumbashree — officials who are unhelpful. They have been asking me to give in writing that the hotel has been shut down permanently.” 

Women entrepreneurs allege that they were not informed about the subsidy being discontinued, and only got to know about it from news reports. Kudumbashree officials say that the CDSs were in the loop and asked to pass on the information to the Janakeeya Hotels. 

The order discontinuing the subsidy attributes the government decision to the change in situation from when COVID-19 was a threat. It says the rates can be fixed at a minimum of ₹30 and ₹35. The district planning committee too can fix the rates for the meals in consultation with the Kudumbashree district missions. In Thiruvananthapuram district, the hotel representatives, it is learnt, have agreed to the new rates.  

Kudumbashree officials say the hotels will not be affected much as they will now get ₹30 at one go rather than ₹20 initially, followed by a wait for the pending subsidy. 

The government order on subsidy underlines that since some 30% of the Janakeeya Hotels sell only meals, they face shutdown. It urged the hotels to diversify into breakfast, tea, and snacks to earn more income. Kudumbashree officials say they have been encouraging the women to do exactly that for a while now so that subsidy delays do not affect them much and they can earn more from other fare that can be sold at market rates. 

Faseela Beevi, who runs a Janakeeya Hotel at Madavoor in Thiruvananthapuram district, says she has put up a flex board with the new prices to avoid confusion. Though there has been a slight dip in the number of customers, the hotel sees many regulars. Faseela does not serve breakfast or snacks, but her lunches are always accompanied by specials such as meat or biryani. This has kept her afloat, she says. 

Jessy Johny, who runs a Janakeeya Hotel at Vengapally village in Wayanad, feels stopping the subsidy and increasing the price of meals will not be of much help. “We always encourage people to buy some of our special dishes too. But instead of going for the meals priced at ₹30, customers head to nearby hotels where they get a lot more for an additional ₹10 or ₹20. Our daily sales do not exceed 200 meals.” 

A Janakeeya Hotel in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city that pays a whopping rent already offers diverse fare till the early morning hours as meals alone will not rake in enough money. However, it faces competition from street food trucks. There’s also the looming threat of a land acquisition. This has prompted the group to think of winding up the Janakeeya Hotel and launching a food truck. “But if we stop completely, the creditors will be at our doorstep demanding immediate repayment. As long as we keep the hotel open, we can keep delaying payments till the subsidy reaches us,” say the women running it.

Many entrepreneurs who have diversified into snacks and dinner claim that without subsidy there is little profit for them. Kudumbashree officials, who were at the helm when the Janakeeya Hotels opened, point out that initial training provided to the women was such that they could make a profit of at least ₹5 on a meal priced at ₹20. The subsidy income was in addition to that. 

The Janakeeya Hotels flag two related issues — one, that the subsidised rice or provisions that they are supposed to get from the Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation (Supplyco) either never reach or are of inferior quality.  Also, the local bodies almost never pay the building rent, electricity or water charges, even if the bills are presented to them. 

A Kudumbashree status report indicates that 255 local bodies have not paid electricity charges and 220 have not arranged for building or paid the rentals. 

A Janakeeya Hotel at Ambalavayal in Wayanad has rent and power bill overdue although it stopped functioning in December last year. “The panchayat asked us during an audit if we got the money. We sought their help to get what is due to us. Subsidy received till December was used to pay off all the creditors, so we are debt-free,” says one of the six women who used to run it. 

Kudumbashree has also proposed to Supplyco to provide rice meant for all the Janakeeya Hotels together and make available provisions too at subsidised rates. The issue of LPG cyclinder prices too was taken up, but no decision has been made on these. 

The women entrepreneurs claim many outlets have closed, but the Kudumbashree says that except for the 120-odd hotels that have been inactive for a while now, none has shut shop. 

Local bodies have also been urged to extend necessary support to the hotels in case they do not have adequate space or facilities or want to serve breakfast or tea. 

A women packing   meals at a Kudumbashree Janakeeya Hotel  in Thiruvananthapuram.

A women packing meals at a Kudumbashree Janakeeya Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

The subsidy pending from December last year to August 11 comes to a total of ₹41.09 crore. The Finance department is taking steps to release funds and pay all the remaining subsidy by the end of the year, says a Kudumbashree official. 

For the Janakeeya Hotels, the future looks as grey as the sky above. 

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