Kolkata: It’s about 11.30 a.m inside a ‘people’s canteen’ or community kitchen. Work is going on in feverish pace on the rooftop of a building. There’s a chain-pulley that lifts crates to the rooftop where the food production centre and packaging centre is situated. The building houses the office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Garfa, Kolkata, and the food is being prepared mainly by working class people of the area.
“Today, we have cooked rice with spinach and egg curry, tomorrow we will prepare peas pulao with chilly chicken. We change our menu every day,” said Pratik Bhattacharya, a Left mass organisation functionary, who is now involved in community kitchen work.
Inside the kitchen, one can see aluminium foils and white packets with CPI(M)’s emblem in red, shone brightly. The average quantity of about 300 gm rice and other items, packed neatly, are meant for daily wagers and those involved in labour-intensive work. “Sometimes two friends share three packets,” Bhattacharya told NewsClick.
The community kitchen programme is being run by the CPI(M) in several areas of Kolkata, South 24 Parganas, Jalpaiguri in North Bengal among others, mainly aimed at supplying free nutritious food to those living in penury, while people living in working class settlements are supplied food packets and fooodgrains at subsidised prices, CPI(M) politburo member Mohammed Salim told NewsClick.
Salim said this was “thoroughly a need-based programme” in the current precarious situation of the vulnerable sections of the population, such as the working class, migrants, daily wagers and the jobless.
“It was in 1943 (Bengal famine) that the first such programme was started when four million farmers of undivided Bengal perished. It was the communists who took the initiative, along with the Indian People’s Theatre Association or IPTA, and all mass organisations and opened langarkhana, where people from Punjab sent one rake-load of food items. This was after Syamaprasad Mukherjee, as food minister of Bengal province, had miserably failed and Bengal suffered its worst famine when food items were diverted for war efforts, leaving people to starve.”
The CPIM) leader said post-pandemic induced lockdown and cyclone Amphan, the party had started operating many community kitchens, community markets and people’s canteens from Cooch Behar to Kakdwip. Most of the work is overseen by youth who are called ‘red volunteers’, he said.
For instance, in Jadavpur, after the sudden and unplanned countrywide lockdown was announced, it was CPI(M)’s area committee that was the first to organise food stocks for distribution to over 150 unorganised labourers in the area, mainly Railway loaders and unloaders from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. This effort continued for over 100 days, after which this community kitchen experience was replicated in Shyamapalli.
Kallol Majumdar, secretary of CPI(M) Kolkata District Committee, told NewsClick that three more such kitchens at Behala, North Kolkata area are operating with success. He said the failure of the administration to reach the vulnerable sections of the people was the reason why these community kitchens had become so popular.
“We don’t have any food delivery app, but every day, on average, about 1,100- 1,200 ‘people’s meal packets’ @ Rs 20 are taken by common people in each of the four delivery centres in three ward areas. The crowd sometimes runs to hundreds”, said Majumdar.
Dhruba Das, one of the key organisers of the programme in Jadavpur area, told NewsClick that for them, more than the numbers, it is the end users and the interaction with them that mattered most.
“A food delivery app might give us higher numbers, but that will affect people’s participation at every step – from the production process to consumption. Most of the people buying our food packets are working class people,” he said.
The Jadavpur constituency, with average urban per capita expenditure of Rs 2,251, is facing an acute pandemic situation. Rail links, the lifeline of the district, were opened only last Wednesday.
Fulu Haldar, a daily household worker, waiting for a food packet in the queue, said the programme was “extremely helpful” for daily wage earners like household workers, rickshaw pullers, small shop employees, for whom getting hygienic calorie-laden food was a big problem during pandemic.
Narayana Chhati, a rickshaw puller, said his vehicle has a Trinamool Congress trade union number plate and his union at first objected to any of their members taking meals from the Left-run canteens, but now even the union leaders take meals from here but on condition of anonymity. “It’s (people’s canteens) good for all of us and saves us lot (of money) and our health also,” he said.
In fact, Dhruba Das said several people who do not vote traditionally for the Left had donated money for the cause.