By Rajaram Suresh:
While returning home after a good, morning session of cricket, a small green building on the way almost escapes my eye. I slow down to examine this new addition to my neighbourhood. ‘Amma Unavagam’ is written on a board in block letters. It kindles my appetite. I rummage my wallet for change. It doesn’t have much. I enter hesitantly. Little do I know that I’m in for a pleasant surprise. Fifteen minutes later, I’m poorer by ₹8. However, I exit the canteen, thoroughly satiated.
‘Amma Unavagam’ (Mother’s Canteen), a chain of severely subsidised canteens, conceptualised by Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, has become a roaring hit in Chennai. Dishing out food at rates next to nothing, the canteens have expanded very fast, having over 200 establishments across urban centres in Tamil Nadu. In a country where even a cup of tea costs ₹6, the canteens provide Idlis at ₹1 a piece and Pongal at ₹5. Sambhar rice costs ₹5 a plate and curd rice costs ₹3 per plate. For a state which was grappling with water and power shortage in October, 2013, this master move by Jayalalithaa, extended a long helping hand that navigated through nooks and corners directly to the people. It quenched food scarcity at the most fundamental level.
“Cheap stuff lacks quality” has been the line of thought for many Indians. Amma’s canteens have revamped the stereotype entirely. Not only is the food sumptuous, but the method of preparation has been found to be hygienic and methodical, by the public. It is, hence, not without reason that the canteens attract customers ranging from daily-wage labourers to corporate executives.
The canteens have killed multiple birds with a single stone. While it quenches the need for food at affordable prices, it has also addressed the issue of women unemployment as 12 ladies are provided employment in each canteen. According to this article from March, 2014, the canteens employed women from Self Help Groups (SHGs) at about ₹300 per day, which is, by no means, a meagre amount.
At the time of its inception, not many would have batted for the sustainability of this project, given the rates. Surprisingly, the canteens have defied this belief by relatively outshining other government initiatives in terms of corruption, leakage and hoarding. How this was managed, is still a pleasant mystery, but no one seems to have any qualms about its terrific service.
Anyone can afford to have three square meals at under ₹20 per day, making it sound a little too good to be true. For poorer families, this is an even cheaper alternative than cooking at home. Amma’s canteen has emerged as one of the most revolutionary success stories in the history of Tamil Nadu.
It was such a dramatic reply to the ‘1 kg rice for ₹1 Scheme’ implemented by the DMK government in 2008 that Jayalalithaa has set mouths yapping. How can one explain the sustainability of the scheme on a large scale? Critics have called it “a cleverly engineered manoeuvre” meant solely to seal her place as the state’s Chief Minister, but few can deny the difference it has made to the life of the common man in the state.
It is not every day that such a revolutionary scheme sweeps an entire state off its feet. It’s even rarer that such a scheme sustains itself beyond socio-economic factors. Amma Unavagam has shown us how such a scheme is not just utopian. The last thing Tamil Nadu wants is the canteen getting trapped in a political crossfire for power, and undergoing a grotesque transformation, undoing whatever good it has been doing so far. Such a debacle is not unheard of, and the state still bears the scars of many such examples in the past. Even if the move may have had ulterior political motives, there is little doubt that it satiated the frustrations of the people in the state . Therefore, even though the initiative came out of the blue and the state’s water crisis is not yet solved by the state, it has turned out to be a roaring success. At the end of the day, it was able to satisfy the voters who decisively voted for Amma in the 2016 assembly elections as a mark of support.