Electrician Adhiram Nayek from Panskura, coconut seller Habibur Sardar from Bhangor, security guard Buddhadeb Banerjee from Katwa and vegetable vendor Majnu Dewan from Sonarpur had been coming to Sector V for years but their paths had never crossed till Monday. Since then, the four, along with 200 others, have been converging daily at the Bidhannagar Municipality Ward 28 office beside Technopolis over a wholesome afternoon meal. As part of chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s affordable food scheme, a plate of rice, cooked vegetables, dal and an egg is being offered at just Rs 5 — less than what it costs for a packet of jhalmuri.
Inaugurated on Monday, the subsidized canteen is currently operational at the Salt Lake address and 27 centres across 16 boroughs of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) between 1pm and 3pm.
“Forget a meal, one can’t even have a pack of telebhaja and muri at this cost. Till last week, I used to eat a veg meal at a hotel in Mahisbathan for Rs 25. Enjoying better food at Rs 5 was unimaginable,” said Sardar, who parked his cycle stacked with coconuts outside the office and sat down for the lunch on Wednesday.
Banerjee was found making a video call to his wife in Katwa, showing her the quality of food. “The food is excellent, just like a home-cooked meal,” he said.
At the Sector V centre, the ward employees said they are yet to set up a full-fledged kitchen and are bringing the food from the mid-day meal central kitchen for now. KMC is running the project through self-help groups. The number of centres will rise from the existing 27 as more central kitchens are set up, officials said.
“We are being flooded with requests to increase the number of such centres to reach out to the urban poor in every possible way,” a KMC social-sector senior official said.
Although the chief minister had stressed the canteen was primarily for the poor, TOI found a number of small-time businessmen and blue-collar employees have been regulars since the canteen started. The government is bearing a subsidy of Rs 15 per plate.
While opposition parties blamed the food scheme as a political gimmick, the beneficiaries had nothing to complain about. “If the political parties are competing to come up with cheaper and affordable food options for poor people like us, we welcome such competition. We could only dream of such a lunch and, thanks to the competition, it has become a reality. I just hope this scheme remains even after the polls,” said Amit Adhikari, an ambulance driver who had a meal at a Maa kitchen centre in College Street outside the university institute hall on Wednesday.