Updated: August 9, 2015 12:33:24 am
What’s eating Parliament was a question on top of many minds last week. At least some of them also wondered what Parliament ate.
It was an RTI reply that stirred the pot, saying the Parliament canteen serves shami kebabs for Rs 14 a plate and a “three-course lunch” for Rs 61 — getting a subsidy of Rs 14 crore every year. Television and social media outrage followed, but what really lit the fire was the BJD’s Jay Panda starting a signature campaign for subsidies enjoyed by lawmakers to end. Twelve MPs led by the CPM’s M B Rajesh countered, asking Panda about the government largesse enjoyed by his family companies.
With parliamentarians being easy fodder, demands were raised seeking their head on a platter. But, for once, the protesters may have a lemon.
Of the total subsidy of Rs 14 crore revealed by the RTI query, about Rs 11-12 crore goes towards salary of the staff manning the canteen, sourced from the Railways.
Besides, figures show, the monthly sales at the canteen remain almost constant during House sessions and in between them, as do the number of customers — around 5,000 every day. Simply put, it’s not just MPs and journalists who avail of the facilities. The largest chunk of customers are, in fact, Parliament staff, ministries whose standing/consultative committee meetings happen in Parliament or its annexe buildings, members of other parliamentary panels, who come both during and in between sessions, as well as parties holding press conferences there.
The per day sales when Parliament is not in session amount to Rs 2,09,939.70. The days it is, the figure is Rs 2,08,670.59.
When it started out, Parliament canteen used to have silver-plated utensils and cutlery, and up to 10,000 customers a day.
“An analysis by the Lok Sabha Secretariat reveals that of the total number of people who eat in Parliament canteen now, only 9 per cent are MPs,” says an official involved in the running of the canteen who did not want to be identified. “Just about Rs 2.5-3 crore is actual subsidy for food,” he adds. “The rest is establishment cost.”
Though referred to as a single canteen, Parliament actually has at least four places where food is served, including one in the Parliament annexe and another in the library building. Room No. 70, on the first floor, is where the canteen reserved for MPs is located, though they more often order food in the Central Hall or in their offices. It is at the facility in the library building that the food is cooked, ever since gas cylinders were disallowed inside the main Parliament building in 2010 by former speaker Meira Kumar after a couple of incidents of fire.
Cooked food reaches Parliament before 11 am and is kept in large bain maries — which keep food gently warm through those heated House hours — till lunch.
Groceries are sourced on a daily basis from Kendriya Bhandar, while vegetables, fruits etc are bought from Mother Dairy outlets around Parliament. All bills are settled by Northern Railways.
Getting the raw materials inside is no mean task. There are security checks at every point, sometimes heated exchanges too, and supplies are loaded and unloaded thrice for checking and X-rayed twice.
The only items sourced in-house are milk and milk products, from the DMS (Delhi Milk Scheme) booth on the Parliament campus. Tenders for desserts are given out annually, to usually well-known Central Delhi vendors such as Bangla Sweets and Kaleva.
It is the rates that make the largely ordinary food stand out — and make it such a hot potato. Soup with a slice of bread costs Rs 8, a vegetarian thali comes for Rs 18, while a non-vegetarian thali is for Rs 33. A fried egg and mutton curry costs Rs 20. A fruit salad costs Rs 10 without cream, and Rs 14 with it.
The rates haven’t changed since 2010, though a government has fallen since then, with inflation cited as one of the reasons.
While canteen officials decide the daily menu, they can only pick from a long list of items and prices approved by the Food Management Committee of Parliament. Its current head is TRS MP A P Jithender Reddy. He has many fans for his “commitment” to serving authentic Hyderabadi biryani and for getting the chefs trained at Gymkhana Club.
For the regulars, more than the prices, the most attractive feature are the staff. The 400-odd railway employees easily qualify as some of the most polite government servants around — perhaps a reflection of their august surroundings.
The House may be a cauldron, but inside here, the MPs too are equally genial. An official recollects how he was at the billing counter when an MP walked in. “After he had ordered eight-nine items, I looked up and saw it was M F Husain. I instinctively looked at his feet, and they were shoeless. I told him he could have just ordered and the food would have been delivered. He was very nice and said he preferred taking it himself.”
The headiest day at the canteen though was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked in unscheduled in March this year and said, “Bhojan do.” “I just brought him whatever vegetarian food there was and at the end of it, there was not a speck of it left on the plate. He gave the waiter Rs 100,” he says.
Most MPs are as non-fussy, staffers attest, and equally big tippers — often paying up to 10 times the price of the food. There are exceptions though. An actor MP known to have a sweet tooth and a not-so-sweet temper who frequently orders in the Central Hall isn’t a favourite.
Incidentally, till just about a year ago, what was on Parliament’s table was the quality and not the price of food served in the canteen. Agitated Rajya Sabha MPs, led by Jaya Bachchan of the Samajwadi Party, had raised the matter of parliamentarians falling ill after having the food; a case in point being senior SP leader Ramgopal Yadav.
If there has been a change, it is in the case of the humble roti. The roti makers that the canteen had procured did not churn them out hot or round enough. After many complaints, these were junked, the strict embargo on fire relaxed, and a provision made for rotis to be made in-house.
Search continues, meanwhile, for a good roti maker.
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