Mumbai: The Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government is tightening the screws on its flagship ‘Shiv Bhojan’ scheme, which offers full meals at a highly subsidised rate, after several complaints regarding the centres set up under the initiative.
The state food, civil supplies, and consumer protection department, through which the scheme is implemented, has given instructions to every district to conduct surprise inspections, and crack down on Shiv Bhojan centres not adhering to the state government’s norms or serving food that is stale or of inferior quality.
An official from the department told ThePrint: “We keep getting requests for shifting the address of an approved Shiv Bhojan centre, and we often notice that till the time a decision is taken on this, the centre remains shut. This needed to be addressed.”
“Similarly, we have been getting a lot of complaints about irregularities in the functioning of these centres too. So, we have given a set of directions to our district officials to take action from time to time, depending on the seriousness of the irregularities,” he added.
Earlier this year, the state government directed all centres to set up CCTV cameras and provide footage to the government whenever required to minimise instances of corruption in these centres, department officials said.
CM Thackeray’s pet project
The Shiv Bhojan scheme is a pet project of Chief Minister Thackeray and was part of the Shiv Sena’s manifesto ahead of the 2019 state assembly election. Under the scheme, the state government gives approvals to individuals and self-help groups to run centres or canteens that provide a full meal — two rotis, one vegetable preparation, rice, and dal — at Rs 10 per plate.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the state government slashed the cost of each thali to Rs 5 initially and later provided ‘Shiv Bhojan’ meals free of cost until September 2021. The Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, comprising the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, launched the Shiv Bhojan scheme in January 2020 within two months of taking charge of the Maharashtra government.
As of 31 December 2021, there were 1,485 approved Shiv Bhojan centres across the state that have distributed 8.24 crore subsidised food plates, according to state government data.
Complaints of irregularities
The official said the department in charge of implementing the scheme has received complaints about non-functioning centres, poor food quality, and non-compliance with the government’s guidelines, such as having a board that advertises the canteen as a ‘Shiv Bhojan’ centre for beneficiaries to be able to access it.
The department has directed districts to set up teams under the district supply officer or food distribution officer that can conduct regular inspections of the centres under their jurisdiction, and even have surprise checks, to fix any irregularities.
The official said the state government has categorised the nature of irregularities as mild, serious, and very serious, and recommended action from a simple showcause notice to the centres, to suspension and revocation of their approval to function as a ‘Shiv Bhojan’ centre.
For example, instances of not starting an approved centre on time, not putting up a board advertising the centre as a ‘Shiv Bhojan’ canteen, not maintaining a feedback register, lack of hygiene at the centres are to be treated as mild offences, and are to be dealt with a simple showcase notice in the first instance. The second instance will attract a penalty on a par with what is considered a serious offence by the government.
Irregularities of a serious nature that will attract a penalty of Rs 5,000 or one day’s earnings — whichever is higher — include keeping centres shut, not serving food in line with the requirements of the scheme, and non-functioning surveillance cameras. More serious irregularities such as serving stale or inferior quality food or subcontracting the centre to someone else will lead to the government cancelling the approval given to the centre.
Officials from the food, civil supplies and consumer protection department also said that the government has given a deadline of 30 April this year for all non-functioning centres that have been granted approvals to start operations, failing which their permits under the Shiv Bhojan scheme will be cancelled.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
Source: The Print