Reported by Santosh Jagdev
Bhubaneswar, Apr 6:
The might of the Odisha government on Sunday came down with its full force on a man who had the audacity to do what the government itself was doing: providing wholesome vegetarian food to people at a highly subsidised rate.
Capital police ‘detained’ Sanjay Kumar Das (48) for selling his subsidised meal on Sunday, four days after the Odisha government had launched its ‘Aahar’ scheme, under the banner of ‘Aama Ghara Healthy Food’.
Das was kept under detention at the Capital police since afternoon on Sunday without being informed why he was called in.
“They saw my food stall as a challenge to the government’s scheme and that’s why they have detained me. Yesterday, some goons came and threw away our food,” alleged Das.
Zonal ACP Aseem Kumar Panda, however, denied Das’ allegation. He said Das was detained on the complaint of an auto-rickshaw driver, who had alleged that he had been beaten up by Das.
When quizzed why he was not allowed to sell his food, Panda said, “He is running it on unauthorized land. That’s encroachment.”
Going by the ludicrous explanation proffered by the officer, thousands of street vendors in the city, who sell everything from gup chup to fast food bang on the streets, should also have been detained for doing business on ‘unauthorised’ and ‘encroached’ land. Since they were not – at least not yet – there had to be some special reason for the detention of Das. In any case, Das sold his stuff from a mobile van unlike the government, which had erected concrete and mortar structures specifically to dispense food to the people.
While the ‘Aahar’ scheme provided rice and dalma at a highly subsidised rate of Rs 5 a meal, Das provided the same for Rs 10. Thus, the government scheme was in no immediate danger of being swamped by Das’ individual effort.
What, in all likelihood, got the government’s goat was Das’ choice of outlets. He had the cheek to open one of his three outlets in the city at Capital Hospital, where Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had his great photo-op serving rice and dalma to an old woman in the full glare of television cameras while launching the ‘Aahar’ scheme on the occasion of Utkal Divas on Wednesday.
Das’ ordeal started almost as soon as he started selling his rice and dalma meal from a van parked in the Capital Hospital premises around noon on Saturday. In next to no time, the government-run Aahar center wore a deserted look.
Perhaps worried that the new scheme could eat into the government’s own ‘Aahar’ scheme, the administration cracked down hard on this private initiative.
An undeclared investigation was launched into the antecedents of Das and his organisation. The policemen on duty threatened the salesmen to shut shop and even summoned the personnel serving the meals to the outpost inside the hospital premises for questioning. They were, however, released after a while and continued to sell their meals.
The hospital administration offered a specious explanation for the crackdown on the privately run subsidised meal scheme.
“We are not allowing any outside vendors to sell food inside the hospital premises to minimize the risk of food poisoning. We noticed the mobile van trying to sell food and informed the police to carry out an investigation. However, we don’t have any idea about the organization that was selling the food or the quality of food it was serving,” said Director of Capital Hospital Biswa Bhusan Patnaik.
The Director’s response raised more questions than it answered. He himself admitted that he did not know anything about the organisation or the quality of food. That being the case, what was the basis on which he suspected that it could be spurious stuff? Secondly, even assuming that he had legitimate grounds for suspecting the quality of the food being served, is police the appropriate agency to determine it? Was the hospital, with all its labs and other facilities, itself not better equipped to test the quality?
Considering that Das has been selling his subsidised meals in the city for nearly two years now, this sudden concern about the quality of his food sounds grossly unconvincing.
The origins of Das’ troubles almost certainly lay in a press conference he held shortly before the launch of ‘Aahar’ where he questioned why the government would spend Rs 20 for a meal consisting of rice and dalma (corporates have been roped in to finance the subsidy of Rs 15 on each meal) when he was able to provide the same for Rs 10 a meal. To prove his point, he had even offered his services to the government.
But instead of accepting Das’ eminently sensible suggestion, the government has chosen to punish him for it – proving in the process, if any proof was needed at all, that there has never been a more petty, intolerant and vengeful government in the state than the one currently headed by the ‘most popular’ and the longest-serving Chief Minister.