Book cafe for prisoners taken away

For Jai Chand and Yog Raj, both serving life terms at the Kaithu jail near Shimla, their daily schedule until last week was not limited to spending time behind bars.

They went out daily from the jail along with other prisoners to manage a book cafe in Himachal Pradesh's capital.

But all that changed last week when the Takka Bench Book Cafe, owned by the Shimla Municipal Corporation, was leased out to a businessman for Rs15.5 lakh a year.

With that, the state Prisons Department virtually lost the battle for reformation it started in April 2017 by setting up the first-of-its-kind cafe in India funded by the state's Tourism Department.

The cafe, with a seating capacity of 40 and constructed at a cost of Rs20 lakh, is located right above the Ridge and on the way to the famous Jakhu temple. It used to open daily from 10am to 9pm. At night, the prisoners returned to the jail.

"Curtains for Shimla book cafe", wrote Director-General (Prisons) Somesh Goyal, the brain behind reforming the prisoners, in October when the decision was taken to lease out the book cafe.

"Shimla Book Cafe became a worldwide icon of inmate rehabilitation and an innovative step that other states followed. Sadly, the icon is set to fall."

A division bench of the Himachal Pradesh High Court, following a petition by Chand, has passed an interim order restraining the Municipal Corporation from leasing out the cafe.

Chand had contended that it was a unique initiative as "the job really changed my life and I was able to provide my family of four children and wife with basic necessities".

He said 80 per cent of the profit went to the Municipal Corporation.

Critics, largely senior citizens and literary figures, said commercial interests have prevailed over social responsibility.

Former Mayor Sanjay Chauhan told IANS that institutions like the book cafe are not created for profit. They are part of a social responsibility that helps prisoners convicted of crimes rehabilitate and stay part of society.

Octogenarian Ramesh Jaswal, a retired government employee, said the cafe has now become like any other commercial venture.

"We are missing the smile on the faces of the reformed prisoners," he said.

The Municipal Corporation said bakery products by prisoners would be sold at the cafe. It also passed a special resolution asking the new employer to employ prisoners.

"Some bakery items prepared by the prisoners are now available, but the prisoners have not been employed by the new owner, which is a violation of the contract," a local councillor said.

Indo-Asian News Service


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