Cooked Meals For The Poor In India: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Last week, the main opposition Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, which is having assembly elections that are being keenly watched nationally, released its election manifesto promising that if it gets elected, they will provide a thali (plate) for Rs 10 to urban and rural poor.
Similar schemes have been running in Maharashtra where the Shiv Bhojan started in 2020 is given to poor at Rs 10 a plate. And the original programme of Amma’s Canteen (Amma Unavagam) started in 2013 gives idli/dosa at Rs 5 a plate.
All these programme have probably originated from the concept of rural restaurants developed at the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in 2012! These kitchens in Tamil Nādu, Maharashtra and other states are serving more than one million population every day. We, therefore, feel it is a great vindication of our concept.
In 2010, NARI started to introduce our newly developed lanstoves (a device which is a combination of a lantern and a cook stove) in rural non-electrified huts in Phaltan area.
The occupants of these huts were landless labourers. Our Interaction with them made us realize that they were spending close to Rs 300-400 a month on medicines. This was a good amount at that time and was almost 15 percent of their monthly wages.
Probing further we found that they were eating very poorly with hardly any nutritious food in their diet, and this poor food together with daily hard farm labour was taking a toll on their health.
We also found that after a hard day’s farm work in the sun, the women of the house were not in a mood or position to cook a complete meal for the whole family and so they mostly ate bread (bhakari) with some salt and chutney.
For poor people the best medicine is food. If they get proper food, then with good physical work they can remain fit and healthy.
Thus, an idea came to me that if the rural poor can be given a basic thali (plate) for a subsidized price, then they will not only get proper food but will get away from the drudgery of cooking. Besides, this will also reduce the household pollution since minimal amount of cooking will be done on the inefficient and polluting woodstoves (chulhas).
Cooking is a luxury for the rich and the upper middle class. For rural and urban poor, it is a chore and a misery. Hence subsidized meals in rural restaurants can be a very attractive alternative for these people.
So, the concept of rural restaurants was developed and was publicized in 2012. We carried out detailed calculations on various aspects of such a concept and concluded that a thali for Rs 10 would be economically viable for the food provider. Interestingly, this calculated cost of a thali is presently being used by both the government of Maharashtra and is in the manifesto of the Samajwadi Party.
The concept visualized that these restaurants will be similar to regular ones but for people below poverty line (BPL) they will provide meals at subsidized rates. The poor will pay only Rs 10 per meal and the rest of the cost, which is expected to be quite small, will come as government subsidy. Our calculations showed that this subsidy will be only Rs 2.50 per person per meal.
Thus the total cost will be Rs 30 a day for three vegetarian meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner. In 2012, the average wage of a labourer used to be Rs 100 a day and so the meals cost came to be 30 percent of his wages. We had also proposed that the buying of meals could be facilitated by the use of UID (Aadhar) card by the rural poor.
Since the food will not be cooked in huts, this strategy, besides reducing pollution in rural households, will also reduce women’s chore so that they can use that time in gainful activities like teaching children. These restaurants could also be used for socializing and provide a meeting place besides giving nutritious food.
How to do?
Providing reasonably priced wholesome food for rural poor is the basic aim and programme of the Indian government. However, in 75 years since Independence, they have not been able to do so and have slipped badly regarding this aspect.
From the 2021 figures of Global Hunger Index, India is ranked 101st out of 116 countries. For the economy the size of India (we are the 6th largest economy in the world), this is a very shameful scenario. The numbers clearly show that our nutrition and food availability for below the poverty line population is wholly inadequate. Rural restaurants might therefore help in alleviating this hunger crisis.
The concept suggested the following to make it attractive:
To help the restaurant owners, the central or state governments should provide them with soft loans and other line of credit for setting up such facilities. Also, the corporate world can take this up as a part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity.
McDonald’s-type restaurant systems for rural areas could be a good model to be set up for quality control, both in terms of hygiene and in terms of quality of food material, but the focus will be on availability of simple, wholesome vegetarian food.
More clientele (higher volumes) will make these restaurants economical. Existing models of dhabas and Udupi-type restaurants can be used in this scheme. These restaurants may also be able to provide midday meals in rural schools. At present, the midday meal programme is faltering due to various reasons.
Energy and jobs
Cooking food in these restaurants will also result in much more efficient use of energy since the energy/kg of food cooked in households is greater than than in restaurants. The main thing, however, will be to reduce drastically the food wastage in these restaurants. Rural restaurants can also be forced to use clean fuels like LPG or locally produced biomass-based liquid fuels. This strategy is very difficult to enforce for individual households.
Large scale employment generation in rural areas may result because of this activity. With an average norm of 30 people employed for a 100-chair restaurant, it was shown that this programme had the potential of generating about 20 million permanent jobs in rural areas.
Besides, the infrastructure development in setting up the restaurants and establishing the food chain might help the local farmers and may create wealth generation in these areas. The Indian government can create structures so that rural restaurants will be able to buy the farm produce directly from the farmers at minimum support price (MSP), eliminating the middlemen.
In the long run this strategy may provide better food security for rural poor than the existing one which is based on cheap food availability in PDS – a system which is prone to corruption and leakage. Thus, rightly so, the major political parties are promising to promote this strategy for food security which can also help alleviate the farm crisis.
(The author is an IIT and US-educated engineer, and a Padma Shri awardee, who is now Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), Phaltan, Maharashtra. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )
(Published in arrangement with the South Asia Monitor)