Lockdown: Amma canteens, a boon in urban Tamil Nadu

From truck drivers to street performers, Amma Canteens, a boon during lockdown in urban Tamil Nadu

Since the start of the lockdown period, over 140.38 lakh idlis, 53.24 lakh rice items, and 37.85 lakh pieces of chappathis have been distributed, benefiting about 85 lakh people, the official said. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Started as a pioneering scheme to offer meals at highly subsidised prices, the Amma Canteens in Tamil Nadu have turned out to be the saviour during the COVID-19 national lockdown, helping all sections, including guest workers, truck drivers and even the middle class.

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Though largely the working classes, including migrant workers, and the indigent people, depend on Amma Canteens, a pet scheme of late chief minister Jayalalithaa, now these have come as a boon to several others who are feeling the pinch of the lockdown with pay cuts and loss of jobs.

What's more, the ruling AIADMK has started bearing the cost of the food served by the canteens in several cities and towns, making it free for the customers.

Of the 650 plus Amma Canteens, run by local bodies, scattered across the state, Chennai alone has 407, over two thirds, and dish out idlies for breakfast, variety rice for lunch and chapathis for dinner and have come in for appreciation for the quality. "I had a wrong impression previously that the food quality here is not good. But actually it is good and on par with other eateries.

During these times of financial distress, Amma Canteens are a boon," a young man, who lost his information technology job a few months ago, said. The man turned up with tiffin boxes to take home food at the city's Madipakkam locality where a large number of people thronged the canteen on Sunday, which also happened to be the first day of the four-day complete shutdown announced by the government in major cities, including Chennai, to check spread of the coronavirus.

With the government announcing that all shops would remain closed during the four days, only the Amma Canteens, named so after Jayalalithaa, fondly called by her supporters as "Amma" (mother), were abuzz with activity.

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A variety of people such as truck drivers, guest workers, and also men and women from middle and upper middle classes could be seen arriving to eat or take food home as staffers were busy cooking and cleaning up.

As a mini-truck arrived at one such eatery in the sprawling but empty Madipakkam bus terminus on Sunday afternoon, the driver and another man got down from the vehicle hurriedly and walked up to the outlet and asked if "anything" was available to eat. When pat came the reply, "only sambar and curd rice right now" the duo was apparently relieved as it was not available anywhere else.

Usually, the Amma canteens do not offer take away but it is now allowed. A V Ganesan, a priest in a small local temple, said he was happy that Amma canteens were open. "The LPG cylinder in my home has gone dry and this canteen is close to my home, and I can eat or take home food," he said. Free food was now a boon since many like him, who work in temples. have virtually no income, he added.

In another locality, a couple of women and children, part of a group of street performers from Chattisgarh, are visually relieved that the canteens are serving food free during the lockdown.

"These are very tough times for us as there is no income and the canteens are no doubt a boon, it is a boon," a young mother of two children said in a mixture of broken Tamil and Hindi. In fact, it is a repeat of such scenes in several areas of the city and especially in north Chennai which has a sizable chunk of labour class population.

At one such canteen in Vyasarpadi, people could be seen standing in serpentine queues on Sunday, but maintaining social distancing. An Inter-Ministerial Central Team to assess the COVID-19 situation in Tamil Nadu also visited a canteen on Kamarajar Salai here.

An official told PTI that a special fund allocation of Rs 19.54 crore has been made for Chennai Corporation Amma Canteens and as a whole Rs 31.39 crore has been earmarked for all the eateries in the state. In Chennai alone 4.5 lakh people eat food at the canteens every day while the rest of the state sees about 6.25 lakh footfall.

Since the start of the lockdown period, over 140.38 lakh idlis, 53.24 lakh rice items, and 37.85 lakh pieces of chappathis have been distributed, benefiting about 85 lakh people, the official said.

Launched by Jayalalithaa years ago, the canteens offer idlis at a cost of Rs one each, two pieces of roti at Rs 3, Pongal Rs 5 and rice varieties including sambar, lemon and curd at Rs 5 a plate. Now the food is being offered free of cost with the AIADMK's local units footing the bill in major cities of Chennai, Salem and Coimbatore besides some other places in view of the lockdown.

In Salem, the home district of Chief Minister K Palaniswami in western Tamil Nadu, eggs are being served free in addition to the regular menu, officials said. The state governments of Karnataka and Rajasthan had launched Indira Canteens and Annapurna Rasoi respectively inspired by the Amma Canteens.

Across Tamil Nadu, there are 658 Amma Canteens, including around 250 outside Chennai under 14 corporations and 121 municipalities.