Not all of us are privileged enough to have a source of income amidst the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic and its resultant lockdown. Not all of us are privileged enough to have a roof over our heads and a caring mother to cook us delicious meals three times a day in these devastating times. With inter-city and inter-district travel banned in Maharashtra, the state grappling with a massive surge in COVID-19 cases and fatalities, not many of us are privileged enough to be living in the same place as our families. And ordering food from Swiggy and Zomato is again a privilege not many of us can afford. Amid this, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi's (MVA) pet project 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' is proving to be extremely helpful to the disadvantaged.
For the unversed, the Maharashtra government launched its 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' scheme on the occasion of the 71st Republic Day. Aimed at providing a meal to the deprived for just Rs. 10, the 'thali' consists of two chapatis, one vegetable dish, one portion of rice, and one portion of dal or curry. After the pandemic outbreak in March last year, the cost of the 'thali' was slashed to Rs. 5 and the government ordered to serve the food as parcels in view of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, amid the ongoing second COVID-19 wave, the 'thali' is being given free-of-cost. Reportedly, there are a total of 893 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' centres in the state.
Recently, I visited one such 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' centre in Pune and understood the intricacies of its functioning. I was amazed to know that the administration keeps track of the beneficiaries of the scheme through a mobile application. While distributing the food, the people at the 'thali' centre click a picture of the beneficiary and upload it on the app. In case, a beneficiary is repeated or even if his picture is uploaded twice, the administration sends a notice and does not reimburse the centre for that particular 'thali'. Each centre is given a separate login ID and the number of 'thalis' to be served in a day is already fixed. Moreover, the app is operational only during the hours stipulated to serve the food.
The 'thali' centre which I visited was run by Swayam Mahila Bahuuddeshiya Sanstha. Former Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) corporator Sunita Gawali and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Mahesh Landge's wife Pooja are among the board members of the organisation. Apart from the 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' scheme, the organisation works for the upliftment of women and provides them job opportunities through various other projects.
When I went to the 'thali' centre at 9 am, there wasn't a long queue outside it. "The timings are changed. It's 7 am to 11 am now," Sunita Gawali was telling the people kindly. An employee was clicking the pictures and uploading them on the app after distributing the parcels. There was some internet issue so it was taking a little while. I went inside the 'thali' centre and was observing the operation. There was a woman who was packing the food. Another one had already finished making the chapatis and left. An interesting thing I understood is that the amount of food is fixed by the government. The centres have to weigh the food and then pack. "40 gm dal, 40 gm vegetable, 30 gm chapati (15 gm each), and 150 gm rice is the pre-decided quantity," Gawali said. "We used to provide 125 'thalis' previously, but now the government has increased it to 188," she added.
The earlier investment (vegetables, cereals, cooking gas, spices, etc.) is done by the 'thali' centres and the government pays them after a period of 15 days. "When the beneficiaries used to pay Rs. 10, the government paid us Rs 40. When it was reduced to Rs. 5, we got Rs. 45 from the government. Now, as it is free for the people, the government gives us Rs. 50," Gawali said. When asked whether only poor people come to take the parcel, she categorically stated that people from all walks of life are among the beneficiaries. "Some are living alone and can't cook, some are out of their jobs and have no money, there are migrants and labourers, we provide food to all those who come," she said.
Following the COVID-19 norms, I also spoke to a few people who were waiting in the queue. They were mostly labourers and old men. "I have been coming at the 'thali' centre since its inception. I stay a little far but come here to work (porter). My son doesn't look after me so my wife and I come here to eat," said Satyajit Gaonkar, a beneficiary. When asked if the meal satisfies him, he said that he doesn't have another option. However, the food is tasty, he added.
Bhau Patil, a labourer who lives alone near the centre, also said that he has been coming here for over a year. "See, even Vada Pav costs Rs. 15, this meal is better than that. Yes, it is not sufficient, but we have to manage as the situation is grim across the state," he added.
After having seen the operation at the 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' centre first hand, it is safe to say that the scheme isn't just a PR exercise. It is efficient, transparent and serves the purpose.