New Delhi: It's lunch time at Jai Hind dhaba, an eatery in central Delhi's Pahar Ganj, bursting with rickshaw pullers, porters and labourers, many of whom have been up and working since eight in the morning and are waiting to have the day's first meal.
A bowl of watery dal (lentils) is priced at Rs.20 and so is the cheapest potatoes and peas vegetable. Chapatis are for Rs.2 each, and a plate of steamed rice comes for Rs.15. The story is the same in the neighbouring Jama Masjid area, where it costs at least Rs.30 for a thali consisting of three rotis, dal and a vegetable at the numerous humble roadside shacks.
The rates are a far cry from the Rs.12 that Congress MP and spokesperson Raj Babbar and the Rs.5 that party leader Rashid Masood claimed was needed for a meal in cities like Delhi or Mumbai.
The remarks were made in view of a Planning Commission report according to which the country's poverty level has come down during the nine years of the United Progressive Alliance rule. Following sharp criticism, Babbar issued a statement expressing regret.
Meanwhile, to test if the claims hold any water, this IANS correspondent set out along the narrow lanes around the historical Jama Masjid, with a Rs.5 coin in the pocket, only to conclude that with Rs.5, one can either have a handful of roasted grams or a glass of nimbu pani - not what you would call a 'full meal'.
So, what's the minimum that one would require for a proper meal?
At least Rs.25, maintains Aslam, owner of a food kiosk in Meena Bazar on the footsteps of Jama Masjid whose clientele consists mainly of labourers and rickshaw pullers.
"This statement of a meal in five rupees is a joke. it mocks the poor. If anyone was indeed selling a meal at Rs.5 in Jama Masjid, I would have been out of business," Aslam told IANS.
Savouring a plate of dal-chawal (rice and lentils), Ram Saran, a rickshaw puller, said that he spends around Rs.100 every day on food.
"What do you get for Rs.5 today? Nothing, except a packet of khaini (chewable tobacco); even a cup of tea costs Rs.6," he said.
Even if Ram Saran and others like him skip a meal due to shortage of money, they still have to spend at least Rs.10 for a cup of tea and some biscuits.
Food carts selling popular street snacks like choley-kulchey (boiled chickpeas and bread) or aloo kachori (mashed potatoes cooked in gravy served with fried bread) too are no less than Rs.15 to Rs.20 per plate.
According to Sunil Negi, owner of the Jai Hind dhaba, the cost of raw vegetables, spices, rice and flour has risen constantly, and he feels it is "criminal" for government representatives to make the kind of statements they are making.
"They should be ashamed of themselves. On the one hand they can't control the rising prices and on the other they make such foolish statements. Which world are they living in?" a fuming Negi asked amidst the loud chatter and laughter from the hungry band of labourers, rickshaw pullers and train passengers from the nearby New Delhi Railway Station.
"If they can't take care of the poor, at least they shouldn't make fun of them," Negi told IANS.
The Delhi government's Jan Ahaar Yojana kiosks provide cooked meals - comprising puris/roti/rice with a vegetable and dal or rajma or choley at Rs.15 per plate.