Amma Canteen orphaned after Jayalalithaa’s death

Amma Unavagam, the heavily subsidised food scheme that served as an inspiration to Bengaluru’s Indira Canteen and several such initiatives across India, is fast losing steam due to laxity in its implementation and poor patronage by the public.

The Amma Canteen, touted as the biggest welfare programme launched by late chief minister J Jayalalithaa in 2013, is facing many challenges, 17 months after her death in December 2016. Lack of quality checks, infrequent inspection by officials of municipal corporations, deterioration in quality of the food served and severe funds crunch are some of the reasons that seem to have let down the low-cost food joints that allow a person to have three-square meals for a mere Rs 30.

Corporations and municipal bodies being headless since October 2016 due to non-conduct of local body elections is also being cited as another reason for poor implementation of the welfare programme that was replicated with slight modifications in several states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. At the Amma Canteen, idlis are priced at Re 1 each, curd rice at Rs 3, sambar rice at Rs 5, or you can have two chappatis with dal for Rs 3.

Non-governmental organisations and RTI activists who have been monitoring the functioning of the Amma Canteen allege that the government has scaled down spending on the food joints, resulting in decline in the quality of food served.

Chennai city alone has 200 of these canteens, while another 207 are spread across Tamil Nadu, and they all have had one thing in common in the past 17 months – lack of patronage from people, with almost all outlets reporting steep decline in sales. Sources in the municipal corporations told DH that the revenue from Amma Canteen has almost halved in the past two years.

But the civic bodies are not ready to pump in more money into the scheme since there is no “pressure” from the top to run these outlets, sources said, adding that Jayalalithaa ensured that these canteens were allotted enough money so that the quality of food was not compromised.

Many outlets that this correspondent visited wore a deserted look even during “busy hours.” “We used to make at least Rs 6,000 a day till 2016, but things have changed drastically in the past one-and-a-half years. Now, our daily sales don’t exceed Rs 2,500. It has been months since I saw a rush of people in the canteen,” a staffer at one Amma Canteen in Chennai said.

Former Chennai mayor ‘Saidai’ S Duraisamy, the man who introduced the concept of Amma Canteen much before it was adopted by his leader Jayalalithaa, says the canteens were hugely successful till the late chief minister was alive.

“Amma Canteen is my brainchild. I opened the first outlet in Saidapet in 2006 and when I took over as Chennai mayor in 2011, I decided to open one canteen in each of the 200 wards in the city. The motive was to provide quality and inexpensive food to the masses and create job opportunities for women folk. But now, the programme is not being implemented properly,” Duraisamy told DH.

The former mayor said dedication and fear of surprise inspection by top officials, including him as the head of the Chennai city corporation, was the hallmark of the programme, which is completely lacking now. He also dismissed suggestions that these outlets are difficult to sustain and that municipal bodies are bleeding since they allocate a sizeable chunk of funds to keep these outlets afloat.

“If it is implemented properly, there is no way that it cannot be sustainable. How did we run the canteens successfully for more than three years? Did we ever complain about sustainability or lack of funds? The will is lacking now. Officials should be proactive in ensuring that these canteens are restored to their initial glory,” he said.

Rejecting talk of poor implementation and deterioration in quality of food, Municipal Administration Minister S P Velumani told DH that the canteens are still popular as they were during Jayalalithaa’s time. The minister said he personally undertook inspections to check quality of food and running of the canteens after such complaints.

“There is no such situation in any Amma Canteen outlet. I personally went on surprise inspections to a few outlets and I found them to be doing fine. We also constituted teams to check the quality of raw materials used and they were also satisfied with the running of the canteens,” Velumani said.

“Even if I get a complaint about one outlet, we will go into it in detail since it is a major scheme of the government,” he said.

Duraisamy says the canteens can be made more popular again within days if the discrepancies are attended to on a war-footing. “It is never too late. If the officials concentrate on the implementation, Amma Canteen can again be run well,” Duraisamy said.

At least among migrants coming into Chennai for a variety of reasons, the canteens are still a hit. Experts feel the government should find ways to ensure sustainability of the canteens, it need not make profits out of a welfare programme.

J Jeyaranjan of the Institute for Development Alternatives (IDA), Chennai, says everything depends of the attitude of the implementing agency and, in this case, the state government. “These canteens are a great boon to the urban poor, many of them migrants. Since a city like Chennai attracts migrant and floating population, such canteens become their primary source of food. This helps people in the lower economic strata.”

Migrants don’t get subsidised food materials under the Public Distribution System (PDS), but the Amma Canteen outlets ensure they don’t have go without food. “I think it is sustainable. When governments in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana can run such canteens, why can’t Tamil Nadu?” he asked.

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Amma Canteen orphaned after Jayalalithaa’s death

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