Thursday, 14 August 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: No Freedom from Licence Raj for Our Restaurants

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

AS WE prepare to raise a toast to another Independence Day (so what if it's a dry day!), the lords of our bureaucratic jungle need to seriously ask themselves if they are honestly prepared to liberate the economy from the shackles that stifle entrepreneurial spirit. India officially bid farewell to the licence-permit raj, but for creators of wealth and jobs, very little has changed on the ground. Ask restaurant owners and they'll tell you how.
A restaurant honcho in a neighbouring state was explaining to me how it takes Rs 10 lakh to get an excise licence -- without which you can't serve liquor, which is a substantial source of easy revenue for any establishment -- worth Rs 3 lakh. The difference is the sum newbie restaurants pay as 'facilitation charges'. It is no longer OK to call a bribe a bribe! And the rules ensure that there are multiple points of and opportunities for bribe collection.
In Communist China, you need four licences
to start a restaurant, but you must get 12-15 in
India. And state governments keep ignoring the
demand for single-window, online licencing.
Picture for representation purpose only.
In this neighbouring state, for instance, you need to get no-objection certificates from four local officials, who, anyway, gave you the licences to open the restaurant (for some strange reason, you have to obtain an excise licence after you've opened a restaurant, which is why new eateries can't normally serve liquor in their initial months unless they are in five-star hotels). You have to go back to each one of them and re-establish your credentials (and the city magistrate get to sit  over your case twice, once to start the process and then to certify that the process has been completed satisfactorily) before your file can move up to the state excise department, which is another hell hole.
My source shocked me with his stories on the extent of bribery in the state excise department. Peons, who double as 'facilitators', demand 'walking money' to deliver a file from one office to another. Personal assistants of officials ask for gratification before they tap on the print command to get an important printout.
And even after you have greased the relevant palms, your file may come back with ridiculous objections such as the one raised on a particular restaurant's application. If more licences are given out in this particular district, noted the objective official, the workload of the district excise administration will go up so much that it wouldn't be able to handle it. The district excise administration was therefore advised to state whether it would be able to cope with the burden of handling that one additional licence!
Well, if the state exchequer earns Rs 3 lakh every year from each excise licence, it can jolly well second officials to the district excise administration to manage the 'overload'. Restaurateurs therefore take the easy way out and sign up facilitators who profession it is to liaise with the relevant officials--read, pay bribes to get files moving. A major fast food chain has a vice-president with a staff of three dedicated to this honourable task, which includes skilful management of accounts, for the facilitation charges are paid in cash.
Maximum government, as opposed to maximum governance, continues to be the bane of the country's Rs 75,000-crore organised food service sector, which contributes Rs 12,000 crore annually to the national kitty. That is exactly the point made by the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) at a recent meeting with Tourism Minister Shripad Naik.
Restaurateurs across India have to obtain 12-15 licences from 10-12 different authorities before they can operate. These licences have to be renewed every year, the rules vary from state to state, and worse, despite years of representations to various governments, the organised restaurant sector has not got anyone to agree to a single-window, corruption-free, online clearance. Did anyone say the licence-permit raj is over? It is, but in Communist China, where you need four licences to open a restaurant. Time to move from Chandni Chowk to China?


LAST WEEK, I dropped in at Geoffrey's, the old pub-style restaurant that opened at Ansal Plaza in the days when such establishments were hard to come by and thereafter moved to Select Citywalk, and got talking with its 20-something owner, Shobhit Saxena. He had a friend with him who has just come back home after getting a bachelor's degree in financial management from Peking University, China.
Farzi Cafe's Posh Maggi, drizzled with truffle
oil, comes with a pan-seared foie gras on top.
The two were remembering their days at Scindia School, Gwalior, where their favourite staple was Maggi instant noodles, which they would cook by boiling water with two keys attached to wires plugged to an electricity connection. The keys were effective conductors of electrical heat. The hunger-driven jugaad would put immersion heaters to shame!
I have watched with wonder our national romance with Maggi, even though it is impossible to make it in two minutes, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across Posh Maggi on the menu at the newly opened Farzi Cafe at Cyber Hub, Gurgaon. A creation of the restaurant's brilliantly inventive young chef, Himanshu Saini, it is a portion of Maggi noodles drizzled with a generous dollop of truffle oil and topped up with a pan-seared chunk of foie gras. It was heaven on a plate, where everyday noodles were transformed by the Cinderella treatment they got. They were a treat even without the foie gras, for the aromas of the truffle oil linger around to tease your senses.
Maggi makes an appearance also on the menu of Beer Cafe, but in a humbler form, with three options: chopped vegetables, or eggs, or chicken.  My Big Maggi Moment, though, was at Tapri, Jaipur's trendy 'tea cafe' about which I have written more in a companion piece in this column. It has eight kinds of Maggi on the menu and they come with the most interesting names -- from Bachelor, which is plain Maggi, to Tadka, Green (with peas, spinach, broccoli, zucchini and capsicum), Firangi (for mharo beto angrez!) and Jaipur Rural (spicy), as opposed to Jaipur Urban (creamy). Restaurants seem to have wised up to our love for all things Maggi -- and how!


Chai Chic: Tapri brews new style statement
JAIPUR has always been associated with classical food. Niro's took the flavours of Delhi's Kwality to Jaipur, even as Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar's ghewar and Rawat's pyaaz kachoris kept acquiring a fan following in the national capital. But never has the city seen a trendy hangout of the young (and the young at heart) at a 'tea house' named Tapri. Strategically located behind one of the showrooms of Surana Jewellers, Tapri, with its kitschy design, edgy menu and decent selection of teas, has made cutting chai, vada pao and the Rs 2 mini-pack of Parle Glucose-D into style statements. It is here that you see the cosmopolitan face of tradition-bound Jaipur.
Tapri is the Marathi word for a roadside tea stall (Rajasthanis would call it chai ki thadi) and that is how rookie HDFC Bank executives Ankit Bohra and Sourabh Bapna launched the brand, which was born out of a business idea presentation for their MBA programme, a couple of years ago at Lal Kothi. They broke even in six months and they have graduated from streetside to high street, but their menu favourites -- poha (served imaginatively with Bikaneri bhujia), dal omelette, Ishpecial V.P. (vada pao!), eight varieties each of grilled sandwiches and Maggi, and ten pages of tea options -- have stayed the same. What's different is that they now get full houses of Jaipur's hip set.


THE MAGGI wave seems to be catching on. I was at T1 (or Terminus One), a smart restaurant with a smarter menu from Vikrant Batra, promoter of the hugely popular Cafe Delhi Heights, at Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj, and lo and behold, I was served an ISBT Makhni Maggi drenched in a soul-satisfying creamy gravy with a dollop of butter on top. Dishes such as these play on people's nostalgia and take them back to the familiar territory of tastes they have grown up with. This is why Indian food has become fashionable all over again and restaurants are investing time and money to delve deeper into the country's treasure house of cuisines and revive old recipes.

The column first appeared in Mail Today on August 14, 2014.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers