Located on Shimla’s Mall Road, Indian Coffee House (ICH), an iconic eatery that has been visited by stalwarts of sundry fields, is struggling to sustain amid the Covid pandemic.
The popular café even saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit in December 2017. A hard-to-miss eatery that features on everyone’s itinerary if they are visiting Shimla is on the brink of a shutdown according to reports.
Run on a cooperative basis, the staff at ICH has not been paid for the past year. Most of the staff members who come from Uttarakhand and UP have families back and are unable to meet their monthly expenses.
“We are in dire need of support. The lockdown has broken our back and thus we are unable to stand and operate anymore. The time is really running out for us and we may disappear from Shimla’s landscape soon”, says Atma Ram, ICH manager.
ICH, which attracts a clientele that includes intellectuals, government servants, retirees, judges, professors, legendary writers and old-time journalists is run on a ‘no-profit-no-loss basis’. There is no bank balance or funding source to sustain the eatery that employs 47 staffers.
The sales, which used to range between Rs 1.25 to Rs 1.30 lakh per day has been hit by the lockdown. The coffee house, as per government guidelines, opens only for three hours in a day to wind up hurriedly at 1 pm. There are hardly any visitors barring a few committed old ones. The sale has shrunk to a bare amount of Rs 1000 to 1200 per day.
During the 2020 lockdown, the coffee house was shut down and staff members left for their hometowns.
“In November-December 2020, we did see a ray of hope and sales also went up at least to meet the minimum expenditure. Now, it’s back to square one, and worse than the last time. The liabilities have shot up and lie between Rs 2 to Rs 2.50 crore“, Atma Ram says.
Bhagi Ram, one of the waiters, says, “We have withdrawn all of our savings and taken loans from friends and relatives to feed ourselves. Covid is killing us all and made our lives miserable”.
The current plight of the ICH was highlighted by a social media post of one Arvind Upreti on May 26, who within hours was joined by hundreds of residents of Shimla and coffee enthusiasts. They share their concern about the fate of the employees who work at ICH.
B D Sharma, a retired Director Public Relations of Himachal Pradesh government who has been a regular customer for the past 48-49 years, said, “The story of Atma Ram manager and staff is heart rendering and calls for action from society to save a heritage and staff”.
“We can think about some mechanism to sustain this landmark café. I am ready to contribute upto Rs 5000 if others also agree. Besides tourists, there are thousands of coffee house lovers who go to the coffee house frequently. If all daily goers contribute Rs 2000 each it will amount to Rs 4 lakhs and we can provide an amount of about Rs 8000 to each worker of the coffee house which will give them a little succor”.
ICH has a history to gloat. Dating back to 1957, the coffee house has seen visits from the country’s top dignitaries from former Prime Minister Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru whose picture while sipping coffee hangs in the reception area to Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.
It was after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit that the Indian Coffee House caught global attention. In 2017, when he came to attend the swearing-in-ceremony of the incumbent Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Jai Ram Thakur, Modi also visited the coffee house.
PM Modi has often mentioned spending hours at the coffee house with journalists and party cadres during his time as BJP general secretary, Himachal Pradesh.