Birthday Bonanza

on Monday, July 14, 2008

DMK chief M. Karunanidhi gives people in his state a birthday gift — economy meals in hotels at Rs 20, reports PC VINOJ KUMAR

Last month, 60-year old Dhanalakshmi, who works in a Bombay Dyeing showroom in Mylapore, began eating lunch at the nearby Sangeetha Hotel. She would get a limited South Indian meal of 300 gm rice, 100 gm each of sambar, rasam and butter milk, two vegetable dishes of 75 grams each and some pickles—for just Rs 20. “It is sumptuous and the quality is top class,” says Dhanalakshmi.

The quality comment is unsurprising, because the Sangeetha chain is known for consistent quality: what is incredible is the price. Earlier, a meal with about 450 gm of rice at the same hotel cost Rs 35. Customers like her simply could not afford that and would have to settle for something lighter like a dosa (at Rs 20). It was not filling, but there was no choice. “I couldn’t afford the meals,” she says.

The concept is a birthday present for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi: a scheme by which hotel owners in the state offer an ‘economy meal’, for the benefit of poor and middle class customers. Negotiated by the state government to beat inflation induced hikes in meal costs, the subsidised meal scheme was launched on June 3, Karunanidhi’s 85th birthday.

For the DMK government, the Rs 20 meal is the latest in a series of populist moves following its Rs 2 per kg rice, free land, colour televisions and gas stove schemes: another present from the DMK supremo to his adoring public.

Rovin Raj, a 25 year old software engineer, tucks into the meal on a humid afternoon at Hotel Rusi in Adyar. “I have been taking this since it was introduced,” he says. For Jayachandran, a 23 year old accountant in a private firm, it is the blend of “good food and the right price” that has got him hooked to the Rs 20 meal.

However, the hotel owners are not as happy: many hotels do not display prominently the availability of such meals, and had only reluctantly agreed to the idea after several rounds of negotiations with the government.

It all began after reports appeared in the media that hotels had hiked up the cost of various food items. State Food Minister A V Velu held discussions with representatives of the Hotel Owners’ Association and urged them to roll back the price hike, at least for a few popular dishes such as idli, pongal, dosa, vadai and tea.

Hotel owners demanded the government provide them some concessions. “We expressed our difficulties at cutting the prices. Till a decade ago, the electricity charges for hotels were low. But now we are paying commercial tariffs, which are almost double the industrial tariffs. We wanted hotels too to be charged under industrial tariffs, but the government did not accept our demands,” says R Srinivasan, the association’s secretary and proprietor of Vasan Tiffin Home in Madurai.

After some hard bargaining, the hotels decided to slash the prices of selected items by 10 to 15 percent. They also agreed to introduce the Rs 20 meal all over the state. Initially, the quantity of rice was fixed at 250 gm, but later it was increased to 300 gm, following complaints from customers that the quantity was insufficient.

Many owners now wonder if they can continue to provide the meal at the current price, given the escalating prices of foodgrains, vegetables and cooking gas. Says P Rajagopal, proprietor of the Sangeetha group, “The price of commercial cooking gas has been hiked several times in the last few months. It has gone up from Rs 850 for a 17 kg cylinder to Rs 1105. We are finding it difficult to cope with the situation.”

Whether or not the Rs 20 meal scheme lasts, there’s little doubt that at present, it’s keeping voters satiated. What was that old saw, about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach?

Posted on July 11, 2008