Indian eatery run by murder convicts praised for politeness, hygiene

July 17, 2014

As India’s capital baked under a heat wave this month, banker Gaurav Gupta sat down for lunch at a new air-conditioned restaurant, and was greeted by a smiling waiter who offered him chilled water and took his order — a traditional “thali” meal of flatbread, lentils, vegetables, rice and pickle.

Nothing unusual, except that the employee, like most of his co-workers, is a convicted murderer serving time in South Asia’s largest prison complex.

“Tihar Food Court” on Jail Road in west Delhi is part of a wide range of reform and rehabilitation initiatives undertaken at the Tihar prison. It opened in the first week of July on an “experimental basis” while waiting for formal clearances, and is located half a kilometre from the prisoners’ dormitories.

With a spacious interior lined with gleaming wooden tables and walls adorned with paintings by prisoners, the 50-seat restaurant is coming in for praise from customers, especially for being clean and for the polite behaviour of its employees, who were trained by the Delhi Institute of Hotel Management, an autonomous body under the state government.

“The food is average. But the hygiene factor is really good, very clean. And it’s a good thing they are employing prisoners,” said Gaurav Gupta.

(For more pictures of the Tihar Food Court restaurant, click here )

Restaurant manager Mohammad Asim, smartly dressed with his white shirt tucked in, said he gets around 50 customers a day. Each worker is paid 74 rupees ($1.20) per day.

The menu is vegetarian with mostly north Indian items such as samosa, dahi bhalla, paneer pakoda and rajma chawal. The deluxe thali is the priciest fare costing 150 rupees ($2.5) while samosa and kachori are the cheapest at 10 rupees (17 cents).

“Those who come once come back again to have our food,” said Asim, who has spent 14-1/2 years in jail for murder.

To be eligible to leave the prison gates and work in the restaurant, inmates must have undergone at least 12 years imprisonment with an “unblemished record”, considered “trustworthy”, and studied at least until high school.

Also, only those prisoners eligible for release in the next one to two years are selected so that they are not tempted to try and escape while working outside the prison.

Prisoners commute to work by cycle or on foot, as authorities “trust them enough” not to require a security escort.

Sunil Gupta, Tihar’s public relations officer (PRO), said only men are employed because state prison laws prohibit the employment of women inmates outside jail premises.

“We have sent a proposal to the [state] government for amendment in our rule for employment of women,” he said.

Remarks in the visitors’ book are mostly encouraging.

“The food was simply delicious. The service provided was also commendable. Thank you so much for arranging everything so well. We loved the interiors. 10/10 for cleanliness and humble service. For suggestion; include more variety of cuisines,” wrote Bhoomika Dabas.

The eatery, which is run under the TJ’s brand for products manufactured by prisoners, is a non-profit initiative and revenues would be used for the welfare of the prisoners and to fund vocational training programmes inside the prison complex, said Gupta, the jail PRO.

Once notorious for corruption, drug problems and prisoner abuse, the Tihar jail complex has become a model for prison reforms, offering a range of rehabilitative programmes for its 13,552 inmates, including vocational training, education, meditation and painting.

“The restaurant was set up to give employment to the inmates and to project the positivity of the prison work to the general public,” said Gupta. “Everyone wants to come out of jail. That is the biggest advantage for the work here.”

Customers don’t seem to have any qualms about the background of the employees.

“I think that they (Tihar authorities) have observed them for years and have decided that 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 Samsung India.

Bal Krishan Grover, dressed in the restaurant uniform of red-and-white striped shirt, said he was an electrician before going to prison 13 years ago after he “accidentally killed” someone in a fight.

But the 49-year-old says he enjoys working at the restaurant so much that he plans to switch careers once he is a free man.

“I could be freed after one year. My aim is to set up a branch of the Tihar restaurant,” said Grover.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow David on Twitter at @davidlms25 and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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