Why Amma`s canteen must be replicated nationwide

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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. 

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.

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. 

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.

First  published www.rediff.com

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