May 23, 2013

Food Security: Let us talk of Amma's Canteen

Food being served in Amma's Canteen in Chennai - Hindu photo 

In the midst of all the heated discussion on the relevance of the proposed National Food Security bill, the news of 'Amma Unavagams' (or Amma's Canteen) has failed to catch the nation's attention. The canteen was inaugurated by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on Feb 19 as part of a pilot scheme to meet the needs of the lower strata of society and migrant workers. Operated by women self-help groups, in neat and hygienic conditions, these canteens became an instant hit. 

Charging Rs 1 for a piece of idli, Rs 3 for curd rice, and Rs 5 for sambar rice, these canteen will now serve dinner too. Says a report in The Times of India (May 22, 2013): "Jayalalithaa's promised evening fare of chapathis and dal will be available from 6pm to 9pm. Welcoming this, councilors on Wednesday also demanded additions like beverages and side dishes. The Chennai Corporation will buy modern cooking equipment that can produce 3,000 chapathis in an hour. "A group of six women can make only 50 chapathis an hour. So, we decided to opt for this machine," said mayor Saidai S Duraisamy, during the council meeting. The corporation estimates the demand to be around 2,000 chapathis per canteen, or 4 lakh chapathis a day at all the 200 canteens. Chapathis are to cost Rs 3 each and will be served with dal and korma on alternate days." 

Seeing the popularity of these eateries, the Tamil Nadu government is now extending the network of Amma's Canteen to nine corporations across the state -- Madurai, Tiruchrapalli, Coimbatore, Tirunelveli, Salem, Tiruppur, Tuticorin, Vellore and Erode. 

Despite what some economists might call it as a wasteful expenditure looking at the amount of government subsidy that would be flowing in to keep Amma's Canteens operational, in all fairness the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister deserves all praise. To my understanding this is true inclusiveness. Unless the benefits of the State's economic growth reach the masses, it is no use to talk of inclusive growth. Tossing the GDP figures, as the UPA-II report card does, hides more than what it reveals. I would be more than happy if the GDP growth slackens but more importantly the number of hungry and malnourished also come down drastically. 

A hungry population is a drag on any country's economy. 

A majority of the millions who throng Amma's Canteen are daily wage earners, migrant workers, rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, bus and truck drivers/conductors, and includes various other sections of the lower economic strata of the society. Often many of them go hungry or remain undernourished in a quest to save money for the family. By providing them cheap and affordable food, and too under safe, clean and hygienic conditions, Ms Jayalilthaa has demonstrated that she cares. Whatever be the costs involved, there is an urgent need for the State to step in to meet the daily food requirements of the people. Often the economists fail to work out the economic gains accruing from a well-fed workforce.    

When I first read about Amma's Canteen, I was reminded of the UNI Canteen near the Constitution Club in New Delhi. This popular food joint, providing tasteful south Indian food but under completely unhygienic conditions, is so popular that I have seen political bigwigs and even some of the best known Corporate honchos walking in for a plate of idlis. I am sure Amma's Canteen must be also attracting business executives and well-to-do people who wouldn't mind rubbing shoulders with the aam aadmi.

And this also reminds me of a similar effort I had unsuccessfully made several years back in New Delhi. Accompanying a senior journalist, I had met the Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit at her residence. I had explained to her quite in detail of the way I thought New Delhi could pioneer in ensuring food security. My idea was to draw in religious institutions, philanthropic organisations, social groups, SHGs, and others in a manner that a daily kitchen could be set up in each of the zones. She listened to me patiently, and then suddenly retorted: "Where is hunger in Delhi?"

I was shocked. I told her politely that probably she has been in power for quite long to become so disconnected from people that she doesn't even know whether hunger prevails in the city or not. She probably realised what she had said, and then came out the truth. "So far people migrate to Delhi in search of a job and livelihood. If they get to know that Delhi also provides food, my problem will only grow."

The meeting abruptly ended. We walked out of her home. I don't think she would even remember this meeting. But several years later I was quite surprised when she inaugurated a subsidised canteen. Except for a few media reports at its launch, what is quite evident is that the Shiela Dikshit canteen has failed to draw the needy.


Anonymous said...

Instead of cash transfers, serving food directly makes sense & also gives employment. TN CM proves sensible than economists!


nimeshchandra said...

CM jaylalitha initiative is noble one.I prefer manual preparations of food instead of using machines. We have man power to do it
I heard Jharkhand govt also attempted it
One person probably from AP also serving roti - dal in 2-3 rs venture is commercial

Anonymous said...

It's something every Indian should be proud of without thinking about the politics and benefits for God sake.

Even if a fund is made like Chief Minister's Kitchen Fund and it is open for donations, I am sure millions will donate and I will be one of those.

I salute this initiative, this is what a democracy is and how it should be. The Economists who shamefully criticize this are one whose children never slept empty stomach for the reason being poverty. We need to publicize this regardless of party/politics.

Don't people know on which rate food is served in Parliaments? Re 1 for a coffee, 2 for a full plate of highest class food, are they the only poor people in the country?

Anonymous said...

good suggestion to have a relief fund for a noble cause.

Anonymous said...

Amazing. This intiative is beyond politics and will surely benefit the masses. Finally we see an excellent example of public money being put to good use. Ms Jayalalitha has set up an great example for other states to follow.

Srikant said...

[A] This is a complete solution.
(i) A sensible proportion of cereals, pulses and vegetables will be present in the food.
(ii) Fuel and other kinds of cooking wherewithal (hygiene, etc.) are also taken care of
[B] There is less chance of leak / wastage.
(i) Being perishable, it will not be hoarded (and left to rot)
(ii) Parcels are also specifically banned.