Politics on the menu: Karnataka's Mandya sees proliferation of subsidised eateries named after political leaders

Deena D'silva | Mar 15, 2019 | 6 min read


Deena D’Silva

Mandya: Raghu and his wife Jyothi of Yethagadahalli in Mandya taluk are diehard fans of All India Congress Committee IT Cell head Divya Spandana aka Ramya, who won the crucial 2013 Lok Sabha byelection, defeating powerful Janata Dal (Secular) leader C.S. Puttaraju. Currently, Puttaraju is Minor Irrigation Minister and district in-charge minister for Mandya.

For this middle-aged couple, their routine commences hours before sunrise, with the switching on of grinders. The task: To prepare for at least 2,000 plates of a variety of food before opening the doors of their 'Kumari Ramya Hotel', a low-cost eatery named after the multilingual actor-politician. The makeshift structure, situated between Vivekananda Road and Hospital Road in Mandya town, serves meals to dozens of hungry people hanging around even before their doors open.The offer: 'Pick any food item for just Rs 10'. 

Roughly about 300 metres from here, Suneel from Hassan dishes up food at his 'Namma Appaji Canteen'. An aficionado of former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda, he relocated to Mandya and started the canteen in 2017 to serve the hungry at affordable rates.

Not only these two, over 100 adherents of various political leaders have opened tea stalls and low-cost eateries across Mandya district recently. The state government-sponsored eight Indira Canteens and a mobile canteen offer food at affordable rates in the district, which has seen consecutive droughts and a huge number of farmer suicides since 2012.

With Mandya Lok Sabha seat turning into a bone of contention between coalition parties Congress and JD(S), it’s no surprise that political parties are attempting to draw the electorate through these food joints.

The Mandya LS segment comprises eight Assembly segments -- Krishna Raja Nagara (K R Nagar) of Mysuru district, and Mandya, Melkote, Maddur, Malavalli, Nagamangala, Srirangapatna and Krishna Raja Pete (K R Pete) of Mandya district. The electorate is estimated at 16,90,483, of which around 51 per cent are women.

The district, once famed as the ‘Rice Bowl of South Karnataka’, is affected by severe droughts since 2012, except in 2018, and a series of farmer suicides had hit national headlines. Demonetisation and implementation of GST worsened the unemployment crisis here.

A wig manufacturing unit on the outskirts of Mandya town and many cottage industries downed shutters in recent years. Hundreds of small and medium scale industries, traditional jaggery manufacturing industries (Aalemane), rice mills, brick kilns and poultry farms laid off employees in the aftermath of demonetisation, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Mandya district president C Kumari told ‘Firstpost’.

5,000 Eateries

With decreasing income and increasing political rivalry between the Congress and JD(S), these eateries are making unsurpassed business. The district has around 5,000 such eateries -- from roadside tea-stalls to major hotels, say officials of the Department of Food and Civil Supplies. Over 80 percent of them are in villages, and the remaining are located along major highways running through the district. 

The Bengaluru-Mysuru highway in Mandya district, between Nidaghatta in Maddur and Kalasthawadi near Srirangapatna, itself has around 300 hotels, including food giants KFC, McDonald's, Adiga's, Thalassery restaurants and Saravana Bhavan. Mandya town has over 200 small and medium range hotels.

These stalls provide a square meal for as low as Rs 10-15, while breakfast at Indira Canteens is Rs 5 a plate, and their popularity is increasing by the day.

“So far, we have not received a single complaint against them. We have issued trade licences and monitor the quality,” said Lokesh, Mandya City Municipal Council commissioner.

Apart from joints dedicated to late Congress minister and Kannada matinee icon, M.H. Ambareesh, Deve Gowda and Ramya, there are ‘Modi Tea Stalls' too. Many enthusiasts have also installed photos of late ‘Sarvodaya Party’ MLA K.S. Puttannaiah, a prominent Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha leader. Life-size posters of Ambareesh also dot the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, alongside tea stalls. 

Vote catchers?

The canteens could certainly bring in votes for parties, but none of the owners agree. “I am a great fan of Ramya so I opened the canteen in her name. I sell around 2,000 plates every day and workers of all parties come here," says Raghu. Congress workers, led by former minister M.S. Athmananda, had visited his canteen on the inaugural day.

Suneel of 'Namma Appaji Canteen' echoes Raghu. He told ‘Firstpost’ that he was very impressed by H.D. Deve Gowda and H.D. Kumaraswamy, hence, the canteen. It was opened by Puttaraju, then Lok Sabha member. Suneel sells around 800 plates a day, at Rs 10 per plate.

Mandya town has two Ramya Canteens and two Namma Appaji Canteens. In addition, Manjula, a young widow, established the ‘Ganiga Ravikumar Janasnehi Mahila Canteen’ and displays photos of Congress leader Ganiga Ravikumar, who lost the 2018 Assembly election from Mandya segment. “Ravikumar helped our family immensely and I support him,” said Manjula, who charges Rs 15 per meal.

Will political parties try to woo the electorate through these heavily subsidised canteens?

“Indira Canteens is a flagship scheme implemented by the previous Congress government headed by Siddaramaiah, on the theme ‘Making Karnataka hunger-free’. We will seek votes on his achievements,” Mandya District Congress Committee president C T Gangadhar said.

The Department of Urban Development, through the implementing agency District Urban Development Cell, has opened eight Indira Canteens across Mandya. The eateries named after Ramya and Ambareesh have nothing to do with the party, Gangadhar said.

A mobile canteen, sponsored by the Karnataka State Women's Development Corporation (KSWDC), stands apart. Saritha, a homemaker from Mandya, also offers chicken biriyani for just Rs 40. The "unhealthy price challenge and competition" is preventing her from hiking rates, Saritha laments.

JD(S) leaders welcome the setting up of Namma Appaji Canteens. “It is a great initiative by Deve Gowda's supporters. The JD(S) will provide place for anyone who wants to open Namma Appaji Canteens,” said D Ramesh, president of Mandya District JD(S).

The beneficiaries are the poor: above 70% are daily wage workers and those from economically poorer sections of society. The pavement of the busy Bengaluru-Mysuru highway in Mandya town, next to ‘Mahaveer Theatre’, is akin to a rendezvous point for employment seekers and hirers. Five low-cost eateries, including two Indira Canteens, are located close by. Every morning, 900 to 1,200 workers gather here in anticipation of prospective employers. While a majority find work, many return disappointed. Those who are aged or lean are either rejected or chosen for jobs such as gardening and desilting drains. 

“Employment in the unorganised sector has been hit in the aftermath of demonetisation. I used to get at least 26 days of work every month, now, I get only 16-18 days of work,” says Madhusudhan, a construction labourer from Chamundeshwari Nagar in Mandya town.

While these canteens are becoming increasingly popular, owners of regular hotels hold a different opinion.

“Who can provide meals for such a low price? The operators must be getting financial support from political leaders,” said a hotel owner, who wished to maintain anonymity.

"Parties will use these hotels to provide food during electioneering. The hotels give free publicity to the parties throughout the year by displaying photos of political leaders," Manohar, a hotelier in Maddur, said.

However, District Election Commission officials said, “We are aware of these eateries and will cover the names and photos of political leaders in keeping with the model code of conduct.”

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