Tihar Food Court, a new restaurant in New Delhi, serves its customers a regular fare of north Indian dishes – rice, flatbreads, lentils, samosas, and more. You’d probably get to eat these dishes at many other restaurants in India’s capital, but here’s what’s special about Tihar Food Court – the food is prepared and served by convicts serving time for murder at New Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail.
The restaurant opened earlier this month within the sprawling Tihar complex – South Asia’s largest prison – as a rehabilitation effort on an experimental basis. It is a rather simple eatery with indoor and outdoor seating for around 50 customers, and cream colored walls decorated with paintings made by prisoners. The small staff consists of a manager who is also a police constable, and seven convicts who have displayed good behavior over several years of imprisonment.
To be eligible to leave prison for a few hours of work at the restaurant, inmates must have a high school education and need to have maintained an ‘unblemished’ record for at least 12 years. They mostly pick prisoners who are due to be released within two years time, so they don’t feel too tempted to escape. The inmates walk or ride a cycle to work everyday completely unsupervised, as the authorities apparently trust them enough not to provide an escort.
Earlier this year, the selected inmates were put through a special course designed by the Delhi Institute of Hotel Management. The course trained prisoners on various aspects like cooking and housekeeping. The program also included a job recruitment fare for the inmates who were about to leave prison for good. Those who work at Tihar Food Court are now paid 74 rupees ($1.2) a day.
The restaurant is currently tagged under TJ’s brand of products made exclusively by prisoners, like pickles, cookies, potato chips, clothing and furniture. The most expensive dish on the menu is the ‘deluxe thali’, priced at 150 rupees ($2.5), and the cheapest is the samosa, at 10 rupees ($0.16).
According to Sunil Gupta, a spokesperson for Tihar Jail, revenue from the restaurant is set aside for prisoner welfare and vocational training. “The restaurant was set up to give employment to the inmates and project the positive aspects of prison work to the public,” he said.
32-year-old Suresh Kumar, who has been an inmate at Tihar Jail for the past 12 years on a life sentence for murder, is now an employee at the restaurant. He works at Tihar Food Court 11 hours a day – cooking, serving, and cleaning. “This is just the start so we’re doing everything,” he explained. The restaurant doesn’t have a full-fledged kitchen yet, so most of the food served is prepared by inmates at the prison canteen.
Patrons who have visited the restaurant so far have enjoyed the experience, and have been especially pleased with the courteous service. “The food is average,” said Gaurav Gupta, a banker who recently visited the place. “But the hygiene factor is really very good, very clean. And it’s a good thing they are employing prisoners.”
The visitor’s book at the restaurant is full of comments from happy customers as well. “The food was simply delicious,” wrote Bhoomika Dabas, a guest. “The service provided was also commendable. 10/10 for cleanliness and humble service. Suggestion: include more variety of cuisine.”
Some visitors wrote about their experience in dealing with the inmates: “I think that Tihar authorities have observed them for years and have decided that they can be placed in front of the public,” wrote one patron. “So I don’t think there is a need to be worried.”
“These things keep us busy and ensure that we’re distracted from the fact that we’re living in jail,” said 49-year-old Balakrishna Grover, a convicted murderer who works at Tihar Food Court. He used to be an electrician, before he ‘accidentally’ killed someone in a quarrel 13 years ago. He now says that he enjoys working at the restaurant and wants to switch his career when he is a free man. “My aim is to set up a branch of the Tihar restaurant,” he said.
The Tihar jail complex, which was notorious at one point for drug problems, prisoner abuse and corruption, has managed to turn things around in recent years. The authorities have introduced several reforms such as vocational training and rehabilitation programs to the 13,552 inmates – the Tihar Food Court is one of their amazing initiatives.