New Delhi: As India's capital baked in a
heat wave, banker Gaurav Gupta sat down for lunch at a new
air-conditioned restaurant, to be greeted by a smiling waiter
who took his order for a traditional "thali" meal of flatbread,
lentils, vegetables and rice.
Nothing unusual, except that the employee, like most of his
colleagues, is a convicted murderer serving time in South Asia's
largest prison complex.
"Tihar Food Court" in west Delhi, a rehabilitation effort
kicked off by the Tihar prison, opened in the first week of July
on an "experimental basis" while awaiting formal clearances. It
is sited half a km (0.6 mile) away from prisoners' dormitories.
With a spacious interior lined with wooden tables and walls
adorned with paintings done by prisoners, the 50-seat restaurant
has been praised for the polite behaviour of its employees, who
were trained by a prestigious nearby hotel management school.
"The food is average," said Gupta. "But the hygiene factor
is really good, very clean. And it's a good thing they are
Restaurant manager Mohammad Asim said there are around 50
customers every day, with each worker paid 74 rupees ($1.20) for
the day's work.
The vegetarian menu features mostly northern Indian food
items, such as samosas, or deep-fried pastry triangles stuffed
with spiced potato, and kidney beans with rice. The deluxe thali
is the priciest item, costing 150 rupees ($2.50), while samosas
are among the cheapest, at 10 rupees (17 cents).
"Those who come once to have our food come back again," said
Asim, who has spent 14-1/2 years in jail for murder.
To be eligible to leave prison and work in the restaurant,
inmates must have kept up an "unblemished record" through at
least 12 years of imprisonment, besides a high school education.
Prisoners eligible to be released within two years are
picked for the job, to minimise their temptation to escape. They
travel to work by cycle or on foot, as authorities "trust them
enough" not to need a security escort.
Comments in the visitors' book are mostly encouraging.
"The food was simply delicious," wrote one guest, Bhoomika
Dabas. "The service provided was also commendable ... 10/10 for
cleanliness and humble service. Suggestion: include more variety
Revenue from the non-profit restaurant, flagged under the
TJ's brand of products made by prisoners, is earmarked for
prisoner welfare and vocational training, said Sunil Gupta, a
spokesman for the Tihar jail.
Once notorious for corruption, drug problems and prisoner
abuse, the Tihar jail complex has ushered in several reforms,
with vocational training and painting featured among the
rehabilitation programmes offered to its 13,552 inmates.
"The restaurant was set up to give employment to the inmates
and project the positive aspects of prison work to the public,"
said spokesman Gupta.
A similar experiment has run for more than two years in the
southern state of Kerala, where prison inmates dish up food sold
at a counter near the jail, or distributed by mobile vans.
Customers had few qualms dealing with the Tihar prisoners.
"I think that Tihar authorities have observed them for years
and have decided they can be placed in front of the public ...
so I don't think there is a need to be worried," said first-time
customer Atul Singh, who works with the Indian unit of South
Korean electronics giant Samsung.
Bal Krishan Grover, 49, wearing the restaurant uniform shirt
of red and white stripes, said he was an electrician before
going to prison 13 years ago for "accidentally killing" someone
in a quarrel.
He says he enjoys working at the restaurant and plans to
switch careers as soon as he is a free man.
"My aim is to set up a branch of the Tihar restaurant," said