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Rediff.com  » News » Jayalalithaa's one-rupee 'idli sambar' a hit in Chennai

Jayalalithaa's one-rupee 'idli sambar' a hit in Chennai

Last updated on: March 22, 2013 12:00 IST

Jayalalithaa's one-rupee 'idli sambar' a hit in Chennai

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A Ganesh Nadar

A Ganesh Nadar visits one of Chennai's state-sponsored breakfast centres that serve piping hot food at dirt cheap prices and comes away impressed. Could the way to a voter's heart be through his stomach?

The aroma of freshly-prepared sambar wafts through the air as hungry people line up for breakfast outside one of the 73 centres that provide idli, sambar rice and curd rice -- all staple diet in Tamil Nadu -- for a paltry amount in Chennai.  

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's latest venture to win the hearts of the masses is gaining steam, as serpentine queues spill out on the pavement outside these breakfast places. 

And it is cheap! Idli @ Re 1, sambar rice @ Rs 5 and curd rice @ Rs 3!

It's no scam, but a state government-sponsored scheme.

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Image: Customers line up at the state-sposored breakfast centre
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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Quality control is maintained well

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As I stood outside one of the centres, I saw two young men order 20 idlis each. They drowned the idlis in sambar, mashed them and downed the mixture. They even went up four times to the counter to get a refill for the sambar. The lady at the counter never hesitated as she served them over and over again.

The diners seemed gratified.

The idlis are checked to make sure they weigh 100 grams each. Sanitary Officer K Vasudevan checks the cleanliness of the premises and also the size of the idlis to make sure they are uniform. "I have nine centres in my area and I manage to check at least six everyday," he says with a smile. He did not see any reason to complain after his inspection. 

I walked up to Ravi, an autorickshaw driver, and asked him what he thought of the food. Ravi said he found the idli a bit hard, but people around him disagreed. They all said it was great.

A few of the young men and women said they come to the eatery everyday for breakfast and lunch. "We work nearby and this place is perfect for us. The food is good and it's cheap."

There is a notice prominently displayed announcing that there won't be any takeaways, perhaps to ensure that people don't buy from here and sell elsewhere for a profit. 

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Image: Idlis being prepared at one of the breakfast centres
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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The employees are happy, as are the customers

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Vasudevan says the centre sells around 3,000 idlis a day, 750 packets of sambar rice and 500 packets of curd rice. When asked how they manage to keep the prices so low, he says, "The government subsidises everything, there is a subsidy of 90 paise per idli, Rs 5 for sambar rice and Rs 3.50 for curd rice."

The rice, urad dal and oil are bought from ration shops at subsidised rates.

The Chennai municipal corporation is in charge of the scheme but the centre is manned by 16 women from a self-help group.

"Actually I have only 12 women in my group. I have employed four from another group," says S Shanti, head of the self-help group.

"There is no holiday, so we take leave in turns. We get Rs 300 per day as salary. We buy only vegetables; the rest is supplied by the corporation. The vessels, furniture and the electricity bill are paid for by the corporation. The self-help group supplies only the labour component," adds Shanti.

These women are not bothered about the profit or loss in the scheme, but are quite happy with the daily wage they earn. 

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Image: An employee at the tiffin centre
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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Demand exceeds supply

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Most of the people eating at the centre are labourers, but not all. "If it is cheap, clean and available on my way to work, why not?" says a bank clerk, one of the many customers.

Many children too are eating from their mothers' plates and some are packing the idli sambar in tiffins to take to school. 

Every 15 minutes a woman sweeps the entire place clean. She also wipes clean the tables, which are actually writing boards. The place is spic-and-span. The scheme started only last month, so everything looks new. 

In the kitchen, I'm impressed with the huge shiny vessels in which the sambar is prepared. A young girl sat cutting tomatoes while another placed idlis into a huge vessel.

The idlis seemed to be in great demand. Every 10 minutes the servers called out to the cashier to stop selling coupons as they ran out of idlis.

It takes 20 minutes for one batch of idlis to be ready. Some people waited patiently while others left. "I am already late for work, I cannot wait another 20 minutes," said one customer. 

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Image: The idlis are in great demand
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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Customers are happy with the scheme

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In the back room, two women vigorously wash plates which pile up at an astonishing pace. Idlis are served on stainless steel plates. 

"There are 73 centers in Chennai but we still have not covered the entire city," says Vasudevan. When asked about rural Tamil Nadu, he says, "As of now we are sticking to the corporations, maybe amma (Jayalalithaa) will announce a plan for the rural areas later." 

Customers waiting outside said they were satisfied with the scheme.

Jayalalithaa appears to have come out with a sure winner. To twist a saw around, the way to a voter's heart seems to be through his stomach.



Image: Customers at the centre
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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