Providing wholesome rice meals for Rs 20 under current circumstances of price rise and inflation may be a nightmare for most restaurant-owners. But the tenacious women of Kudumbashree, who have prior experience running community kitchens during the lockdown and serving food for thousands at relief camps during the 2018 floods, have taken on the challenge by driving ‘janakeeya’ (common-man) hotels as part of Kerala’s ‘hunger-free’ project. Kudumbashree was formed in 1998 to enable women into leadership and entrepreneurial roles.
In February this year, the state’s Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac had announced in his budget plans of setting up 1000 ‘janakeeya’ hotels, one each in every local body, that will serve subsidized meals at Rs 20 — a populist reflection of similar initiatives in neighbouring states like ‘Amma’ canteen in Tamil Nadu and ‘Indira’ canteen in Karnataka. The move itself was also a state-wide expansion of an initiative Isaac led in his own constituency of Alappuzha – where people could pay what they can afford for a meal at a restaurant run by a local cooperative.
Since the budget announcement in February, over 750 such hotels have sprung up across the state, almost all run by Kudumbashree, serving meals for Rs 20 between 12 noon and 3 pm every day. The standard fare is simple: rice, sambar/dal, upperi (stir-fried vegetables), pickle and papad. Accompaniments of fish, beef, omelette and pork are also served, but they come at an extra cost. The hotels, that can seat 20 to 50 people at a time, have come at a critical juncture when the economic fallout of the pandemic has dried up jobs, shrunk wages in the informal economy and have left deep holes in family budgets.
Jyothish Kumar, the Thrissur district mission coordinator of Kudumbashree, said the project has been designed in a way so as to provide maximum cushion to the women entrepreneurs to eke out profits from the hotels. Local bodies, be it panchayats, municipalities or corporations, have to bear the costs of renting space for the hotels as well as electricity and water charges. The money for these costs has to be incurred from the local body’s own fund or plan fund. Kudumbashree will pay a one-time revolving fund of Rs 50,000 as an initial working capital to each women unit for purchasing vessels, stove and set up a billing system. It will also provide a subsidy of Rs 10 for each meal sold by the unit. The entrepreneurs can also access the civil supplies corporation’s subsidized rice at Rs 10.90 per kilogram.
“In Thrissur district, we have opened 64 hotels so far. Our target is 94 hotels. In most panchayats, the hotels have been taken over by women entrepreneurs who had run the community kitchens during the lockdown months of April and May,” said Kumar.
On the profit margins of serving highly subsidized meals, Kumar said, “For each unit, the cost of serving a meal comes to around Rs 25-26. Even with our subsidy, they stand to get only Rs 30 per meal. So they are not expecting a big profit out of it. But at the same time, the government has allowed these units to serve food during morning and evening hours at local rates using the same infrastructure support. This can help them shore up their profits.”
Thus, in a way, while serving the Rs 20 meal becomes a part of their social commitment, they can maximise earnings through food served during morning and evening hours.
Some of the units, like the one led by Shiny Unnikrishnan in Meloor panchayat near Chalakudy, are already doing it. The four-member unit arrives by 5:30 am at the hotel every day to rustle up some breakfast dishes like dosa, idli and appam which get served along with tea and coffee. Quintessential Kerala snack fare like banana fritters and uzhunnu vada (medu vada) are also available sometimes. As soon as the breakfast rounds are completed, they get cracking on preparing the rice meal for lunch.
“On the Rs 20 meal, there’s not a lot of scope for (profit) margins especially because we have to divide it among the four of us. Vegetable prices are also high. But there’s a lot of demand for the meal especially among the daily-wage labourers and those working as help in shops. We also serve kanji (rice gruel) for them,” said Unnikrishnan, who’s been with Kudumbashree for nearly 10 years.
In Chavakkad in another corner of Thrissur district, a Kudumbashree unit led by Raji MS has been operating a ‘janakeeya’ hotel since October 16. She too is hoping to reap dividends from serving breakfast dishes and also plans to curate a menu for dinner provided there are more hands on deck.
“If we have to offer more dishes, we need more utensils as well as staff. We have to find budgets for it so we are exploring,” she said, adding that there’s a brisk demand for lunch. “We serve 150-250 meals per day. On most days, food runs out by 1:30 pm.”
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