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Why Amma's canteen must be replicated nationwide

By Sanjeev Nayyar
Last updated on: May 27, 2016 14:41 IST
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Sanjeev Nayyar visits an Amma Unavagam in Chennai, and comes back impressed

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa at one of the canteens. Photograph courtesy: Ammaunavagam.com

In January this year, I visited Tamil Nadu for a temple tour. The first thing I did on reaching Chennai was to buy bottled water. Naturally, I headed to buy a Bisleri bottle, but my driver, Velu, asked me to buy Amma water instead. I laughed and mocked him that he wanted me to consume government-made water.

But Velu insisted, and I relented, since Amma water costs Rs 10 per litre compared with Rs 20 for other brands. 

So, I consumed only Amma water for the next three weeks. It tasted better too. The only catch, though, is that it is available at bus stands and certain specific points and not in retail shops. We bought 30 bottles at a time.

Similarly, I heard about the Amma Canteen. After visiting the spectacular SriRanganathaswamyTemple at Srirangam in Tiruchirapalli, we went to an Amma Unavagam (canteen) centre for lunch. Here is the menu.

Morning Tiffin: Idli with sambar Rs 1, pongal (a popular dish made of rice, milk, jaggery, coconut pieces or mung bean, pepper or tamarind) Rs 5.

Lunch: Sambar/lemon/curry rice Rs 5, curd rice Rs 3.

Dinner: Chapati with dal or kurma Rs 3. I was told this is served in Chennai only.

It was lunch time, so we get ourselves some sambar rice by buying coupons. Two women placed white paper in a steel thali and served us. We removed our footwear, sat down on the ground and had our meal. The eating area is very clean. The quantity of helping is good, but we were hungry, so only had curd rice. No takeaways are permitted.

Can you dream of having a wholesome meal for Rs 8 anywhere else in India?

I saw people from all economic and social strata eat together. I met a middle-class couple who buy coupons worth Rs 100/ every week and distribute to the really poor.

Impressed, I spoke to the ladies there. Their canteen is run by 12 women and rice/dal etc comes from the state government. They added that Trichy had 16 such canteens.  

IMAGE: These women work in two shifts and adjust the timing among themselves. Photograph: Sanjeev Nayyar

This scheme could be one of the many reasons for Jayalalitha's victory. Perhaps, she was inspired by the success of the Midday Meal Scheme for school children started by her mentor M G Ramachandran in 1980.

Cynics might say that Amma has used these schemes to promote herself. But if I were a poor labourer who barely gets a square meal a day, or a middle-class person reeling under high pulse prices, would I care?

A Chennai-based chartered accountant friend who visited an Amma canteen to validate certain facts wrote after her visit, “I had always wanted to eat food from Amma Unavagam. Thanks to you, today we had lunch from there. Very good food.”

Takeaways from Amma Canteen scheme:

  • The poorest of the poor can have a filling meal within Rs 17-20 per day.
  • Each centre provides employment to twelve ladies so supplements family income.
  • It reduces pilferage as subsidy is given at the last point -- on consumption of food and not at the first -- in the form of food grains.
  • Socially it breaks barriers of religion, community and economic status.

IMAGE: The eating area is very clean and is usually crowded. No takeaways are permitted. Photograph: Sanjeev Nayyar.

What are the contours of the scheme, how does it work?

Excluding Chennai, there are 247 canteens in Tamil Nadu. There are 10-11 canteens in each of the 11 corporations, one canteen in each of the 124 municipalities -- the balance being in state-run hospitals. They start at 5 am and close by 3 pm (Chennai timings are different).

Women who work there are selected from local self-help groups and paid about Rs 250-300 per day. They work in two shifts and adjust timings among themselves.

Dal/rice is supplied at subsidised rates through the public distribution system. Milk is procured locally. Subsidy on the scheme is part of the local corporations budget. Construction of centre was funded by the state government at a cost of Rs 25 lakh in stage two; earlier it was being funded by bigger corporations.

While the exact number of canteens state wide is unconfirmed reports indicate there are app 200 canteens in and 247 out of Chennai.  

IMAGE: Women serve piping hot idlis to eagerly-waiting customers. The canteen operates from 5 am to 3 pm. Photograph courtesy: Ammaunavagam.com

Liberals might argue against providing such subsidies. Even when the extended nationwide amount spent would be significantly lesser than the expected cost of the Food Security Bill of Rs 1.3 lakh crore, which makes subsidised food grain a right for 67 per cent of the population, or 82 crore Indians.

This scheme should be selectively and gradually extended nationwide, especially in areas where there is drought or/and extreme poverty. It is better to give the poor cooked food because 1) they might not have resources to cook a meal, 2) they might sell the food grain given under FSA to meet other needs, 3) it reduces pilferage and 4) it supplements household income.

For starters, such canteens can be set up in at least four towns of every district in the drought-affected areas of Marathwada, Vidharbha, Bundelkhand, Karnataka and Orissa. State governments can tie up funding with corporates who would be happy to impact lives directly.  

If the government in Tamil Nadu can run this scheme successfully, why can’t others?

Another way of dealing with hunger -- providing food to the drought-affected is to tie up with organisations such as The International Society for Krishna Consciousness who provide school children with mid-day meals under the very successful Akshaya Patra Scheme.

As of January 2014, the foundation delivers 12,00,000 meals every day from its 20 kitchen centers across eight states. It serves nutritious and sanctified food.

If state governments take a holistic and integrated approach towards providing subsidised cooked food, it would be advantageous to the needy and reduce its expenditure too.

The author is an independent columnist and founder www.esamskriti.com. He tweets at https://twitter.com/sanjeev1927

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