'Amma' canteens: For the poor or for votes?

Children attending a government-run school in India queue for their subsidised mid-day meal outside their classrooms.  The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is gaining praise for its "amma canteens", a brainchild of chief minister  J
Children attending a government-run school in India queue for their subsidised mid-day meal outside their classrooms.  The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is gaining praise for its "amma canteens", a brainchild of chief minister  J. Jayalalithaa, which go beyond providing grain to the poor by serving three square meals a day at impossibly low prices. -- PHOTO: AFP
Tamil Nadu's chief minister J. Jayalaithaa greeting supporters. Popularly known as "amma", or "mother" in Tamil, Ms Jayalaithaa launched seven months ago the "amma canteen" feeding programme.  Critics have dismissed it as nothing more than a pol
Tamil Nadu's chief minister J. Jayalaithaa greeting supporters. Popularly known as "amma", or "mother" in Tamil, Ms Jayalaithaa launched seven months ago the "amma canteen" feeding programme.  Critics have dismissed it as nothing more than a political ploy to get votes. -- PHOTO: AIDMK OFFICE
An Indian rickshaw puller eats a meal of flatbread served with vegetables for 10 rupees at a roadside food stall.  Tamil Nadu's "amma" canteens are serving meals at just 1 rupee to 5 rupees. The canteens are part of a programme set in motion sev
An Indian rickshaw puller eats a meal of flatbread served with vegetables for 10 rupees at a roadside food stall.  Tamil Nadu's "amma" canteens are serving meals at just 1 rupee to 5 rupees. The canteens are part of a programme set in motion seven months ago to take India's food subsidy scheme a step further. -- PHOTO: AP

BREAKFAST used to set Mr Praveen Kumar back by Rs 35 (S$0.70). Now the 39-year-old driver from Chennai spends just Rs 5 for breakfast, saving a whopping Rs 30, when he eats at the Amma Unavagam.

Amma Unavagam, or Amma Canteen, is the brainchild of the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, who is popularly known as amma, or “mother” in Tamil. Started seven months ago, it provides cheap food to the state’s poor, selling cooked food at impossibly low prices.

An idli - a steamed rice bun - costs just Rs 1 (S$0.02) at Amma Unavagam where it might cost up to Rs 10 in a restaurant.  A plate of yogurt and rice goes for Rs 3 and one of sambhar (lentil curry) and rice for Rs 5 at the Amma canteen against as much as Rs 30 even at a roadside foodstall.

The canteens are meant for the poor like slum dwellers, daily-wage labourers and migrant workers but they have created such a buzz that even middle class Indians are trying them out. There are around 200 in state capital Chennai and 90 more in nine other cities in the state.

Officials say no one is turned away.

“The idli and sambhar are so good,” said Mr Aspire Swaminathan, 38, who tried the food once to see what the fuss was about.

“There is a canteen across the street from my house and I see people coming in luxury sedans. This a good initiative,” said the founder and CEO of Aspire Edu-Ventures, a company that helps people set up businesses.

Around 410 million of India’s 1.2 billion live on less than US$1.25 (S$1.50) a day and are unable to afford three square meals a day.

For federal and state governments in India, making food affordable for the poor has been a long-term effort but implementation of the programmes remains a problem.

The country has a web of welfare and subsidy programmes where cheaper grain, fuel and fertilisers are distributed through the Public Distribution System.

By the government’s own admission, corrupt shopkeepers and officials divert almost half of the grain like rice and subsidised cooking fuel which never reaches the intended beneficiaries.

In August, the federal government passed the food security bill which will expand existing subsidy schemes eight-fold to benefit over 800 million people.

But the Amma canteens are seen to have taken subsidy schemes for the poor a step further by providing subsidised cooked food to the poor.

Some critics say canteens will push up the government’s subsidy bill with the scheme so far expected to cost Rs 350 million a year while others call it a political ploy to get votes. But supporters point out that the canteens provide the poor with three affordable, nutritious meals a day.

“Everybody thought this will not be a sustainable initiative. But it is growing by leaps and bounds. What started off as a pilot project is spreading across the state. A construction worker who gets Rs 150 is able to eat very well,” said Mr Swaminathan.

What has also worked is Ms Jayalalithaa’s turning the running of the canteens over to women’s self-help groups, collectives of women that run enterprises.

“What she has done is she has given the canteens over to women’s groups. It gives employment to the women and also provides subsidised food to poor people,” said  food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma.

“It’s a wonderful thing. I know of a lot of couples who go there for Sunday breakfast. The canteens are spotless and food is hygienically prepared, so people don’t mind eating there. I eat idlis at the airpot for Rs 110, that just makes me angry now because of the Amma canteens.”

The canteens, which don’t allow food to be packed and taken away, are feeding 500,000 to one million people every day. Its dinner menu has been expanded this month to include chappati and korma, a type of vegetable curry stew.

“The most important thing is that the food should be hygienically prepared and taste good,” said an official in the Chennai Municipal Corporation who did not want to be named.

“The fact that middle-class people are coming and eating in a canteen for economically weaker sections shows the success of the whole programme,” he added.

The state government is also hoping that the low prices at the Amma canteens will force other eateries and restaurants to lower their prices.

Over the weekend, Ms Jayalalithaa, a popular actress turned politician, took her Amma brand a step further by launching a scheme to provide 1 litre of mineral water at Rs 10, almost half the cost of other bottled water, as a way to provide clean water to the poor.

On Sunday, she inaugurated a state-run water plant that can bottle 300,000 litres of water a day, near Chennai.

At a time when food inflation, which hit a three-year high of 18.18 per cent in August, is rising and prices of onions and vegetables are going up, the Amma canteens have also become a talking point on social networking sites.

“In India, ONE RUPEE is of value only in Amma Unavagam,” said a comment on the Amma canteen’s Facebook page.

As for Mr Praveen, the canteen is a boon. “They are going to introduce chappatis. I am looking forward to that,” he said.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg