Near Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose statue at the five-point crossing in Shyambazar, north Kolkata, stands a fast food joint that looks like any other. Menus are pasted on each wall, a cash box is kept to one side and small tables dot the area outside. One thing sets this stall apart from many others — all four of its staff are women. The stall’s owners — Debolina Ghosh and Nivedita Basu — are running their stall as a franchisee of ‘Ekushe Annapurna’ — the government scheme to provide low-cost meals. Under Benfish, an arm of the state fisheries department, the scheme provides a Rs 21 meal comprising rice, daal, curry and fish. The two friends were looking for an opportunity to start something of their own when they came to know of the government scheme, and used their savings to open an outlet. They then employed other women, leading to an “all-women stall” operating in North Kolkata.
“We were housewives. The only job we did was to take care of our house and children. We always wanted to do something on our own. Joining a job and spending 10 hours outside our home was difficult for us because we can’t ignore our family. So when our husbands suggested us to buy a franchisee of Benfish, which is already famous in Kolkata, we jumped in. We get a lot of customers who buy the full Rs 21 meal, but by selling the ‘Ekushe Annapurna’ meal, we don’t earn profit. But we sell food such as fish fry, batter fish fry and other fried items and make money,” Nivedita Basu told The Indian Express.
Like Nivedita, her business partner Debolina takes pride in their endeavor, having been able to employ her sister-in-law who had recently lost her husband.
“ My husband’s sister lost her husband, she is alone. It was important for her to keep herself busy apart from earning money. Now, she comes to our stall and we run it together. If it gets bigger, maybe we will open a restaurant with only female staff top to bottom,” said Debolina.
Jui Dey, a staffer at the stall, was busy taking down orders and greeting every customer. At 27, she lives alone with her seven-year-old son, having previously gone through bad experiences in her marriage.
“I feel so happy here, it’s not like a job for me. When there are less customers in the noon, we talk and gossip together. No one can understand a woman better than another woman. We also work in shifts. We enjoy sisterly bonds and also end up earning money. I believe there is nothing more important for a girl than being self-dependent. When you are financially stable, you take decisions on your own and live life on your own terms,” Dey said.
Argho Dutta, an accountant at a private firm in his late twenties, is a regular customer. When asked about the speciality of the stall, he said, “It’s not just the famous fish fry of Benfish, I also come here because of the warmth and hospitality. It’s a small roadside stall, but once you come here, you can feel the difference… they (the staff) treat customers with much warmth. I wish these women growth in life.”
Though Ekushe Annapurna is a no-profit, no-loss scheme, the stall sells a minimum of 40 plates of the Rs 21 meal each day within a few hours.
“We love serving this thali as its highly popular. From poor to bachelors or senior citizens who can’t cook at home, all come here and enjoy the meal. I think this type of initiative can only be a brainchild of a woman,” said Debolina.
As the world gears up to mark March 8 as International Women’s Day, Nivedita and Debolina have decided to celebrate it for the first time despite their busy schedule. “We will celebrate it tomorrow and enjoy the newly-received tag of being self-dependent. We will also bring our children here to the stall and eat together.”