In every religion and culture feeding the poor and hungry is considered one of the noblest deeds. In Hinduism too, feeding the poor is a source of tremendous punya and good karma. In fact one of the rituals in Pind Daan is giving food to the needy so as to free the spirits of one's ancestors.
However, offering free meals on a large scale would require a huge investment both in terms of finances and time. A better alternative would be to create conditions by which proper wholesome food is available to all the rural poor at affordable prices. Getting this done will be the biggest charity!
Why we need rural restaurants
"The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 300,000 deaths annually in India can be directly attributed to indoor air pollution. "
Most of the rural poor are landless labourers. After toiling under the scorching sun all day they come home in the evening for a paltry meal. The cooking is usually done on the most primitive chulha (wood stove) which results in tremendous indoor air pollution. Many of them also have no electricity so they use primitive and polluting kerosene lamps. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 300,000 deaths annually in India can be directly attributed to indoor air pollution. In addition, the respiratory ailments caused by indoor air pollution also result in high medical bills for the poor.
Apart from suffering the effects of pollution, the rural poor also eat a very inadequate diet. They buy whatever is available daily at Public Distribution System (PDS) shops and many times these shops are out of rations. Thus they cook whatever is available. The combination of heavy manual labour and a poor diet obviously takes a toll on their health as well as that of their children. If something is not done about the problem soon, future generations could suffer a slew of physical and developmental issues.
Poverty to my mind is not an absence of material goods but not getting enough wholesome food. We are what we eat!
Putting a plan into action
I believe that the best way to provide adequate food for the rural poor is by setting up restaurants in villages on a large scale. These restaurants will be similar to regular ones but, for people below the poverty line (BPL), they will provide meals at subsidised rates. These citizens will pay only Rs. 10 per meal and the rest will come as a part of a government subsidy. Our calculations show that this subsidy will be only Rs 2.50/person per meal.
The buying of meals could be facilitated by the use of the UID (Aadhaar) card by the rural poor. The total cost should be Rs 30/day for three vegetarian meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner. With an average wage of a labourer being Rs 100/day the meals will be covered by 30% of his wages.
Providing reasonably priced wholesome food is the basic aim of the government of India's food security programme. However in 65 years they have not been able to do so. Thus I feel a public-private partnership can help in this.
To help the restaurant owners the GOI or state governments should provide them with soft loans and other lines of credit for setting up such facilities. Private companies can participate in this initiative as a part of their corporate social responsibility activity.
Existing models of dhabas, udipi-type restaurants and even McDonald's can be used to guide this scheme in terms of quality control and hygiene. However, the focus will be on wholesome simple vegetarian food.
More clientele (volumes) will make these restaurants economical. These restaurants may also be able to provide midday meals in rural schools. At present the midday meal programme is faltering due to various reasons.
Reducing pollution: Since the food will not be cooked in huts, this strategy will result in less pollution in rural households. Cooking food in these restaurants will also result in much more efficient use of energy since energy/kg of food cooked in households is greater than that in restaurants. The main thing, however, will be to reduce drastically the food wastage in these restaurants.
Rural restaurants can also be forced to use clean fuels like LPG or locally produced biomass-based liquid fuels. This strategy is very difficult to enforce for individual households. In homes, for other things like hot water for bath, making tea, boiling milk and cooking on holidays some utensils and fuel will be required. Our Institute NARI has developed an extremely efficient and environment-friendly lanstove which provides simultaneously both light and heat for cooking.
Savings: Other than the cost-effectiveness of the meals themselves, eating in restaurants will also require fewer utensils in the house and hence less expenditure.
Social and personal benefits: Other benefits of rural restaurants would be a reduction in women's chores; the extra time can be used in gainful activities like teaching children. These restaurants will also provide a meeting place besides offering nutritious meals. Cooking is a luxury for the rich and upper middle class. For the poor it is a chore and a misery. Hence subsidised meals in rural restaurants could be a real boon to these people.
Employment: Large-scale employment generation in rural areas may result because of this activity. With an average norm of 30 people employed/100-chair restaurant, this programme has the potential of generating about 20 million jobs permanently in rural areas. Besides the infrastructure development in setting up restaurants and establishing the food chain etc will help the local farmers and will help generate wealth in these areas.
In the long run, this strategy may provide better food security for the rural poor than the existing programme based on cheap food availability in the PDS -a system which is prone to corruption and leakage.
In India huge donations are given both in cash and kind to temples. I would urge people to channel these donations to create rural restaurants. The blessings of the rural poor to my mind will be far more powerful than those of the gods in temples!