Why We Need to Open 'Amma Canteens' All Over India

Jayalalithaa's schemes – such as her canteens and baby care kits – may appear to be populist at first glance, but are actually quite entrenched in a welfare tradition.


The late Jayalalithaa at an Amma canteen. Credit: PTI

For development economists, Tamil Nadu offers many lessons in social democracy. The state has distinguished itself with visionary schemes – such as noon meals (known as the mid-day meal scheme nationally) and the Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Maternity Benefits Scheme, which provides Rs 12,000 (reportedly raised to Rs 18,000 recently) to all pregnant women. Both schemes are part of the National Food Security Act, though maternity entitlements have yet to be implemented.

Equally important is the fact that the state has implemented central schemes reasonably well. To its credit is another major social policy intervention – the Integrated Child Development Services scheme for children under the age of six years – making it one of the few states that have managed to implement it well for many years.

In healthcare too, Tamil Nadu is among the few states with a functional public health facilities network. In the 1990s, when the central government forced all other states to target their public distribution system (PDS) for the poor, Tamil Nadu refused and continued with a universal PDS.

But not everyone is willing to acknowledge Tamil Nadu’s achievements. There is a tendency in mainstream media to use disparaging descriptions – such as ‘populist’ for pro-poor initiatives. There is a difference between truly populist measures that reinforce or condone regressive cultural practices (for instance, giving gold and cash for a girl’s at weddings, pawning off free television sets) and measures for which elected governments the world over bear responsibility (maternity entitlements, healthcare, food security measures).

Sadly, too often, prominent commentators and senior journalists routinely gloss over these important distinctions – except perhaps when the leaders die – labelling them all as ‘doles’ or ‘freebies’.

The recently deceased J. Jayalalithaa – who was popularly known as ‘Amma’ –  was not the mother of a welfare state in Tamil Nadu. The tradition can be traced back to its origins with earliest chief ministers and the Dravidian movement. But equally, there is no doubt that Jayalalitha has left her mark as well.

It is hard to delineate Jayalalithaa’s contributions. Often, it took the form of strengthening or expanding existing programmes. But she added many new programmes. Some of her initiatives did have elements of populism – such as cash incentives for the wedding. But one could equally argue that there were progressive elements even in these schemes – protecting the girl child, encouraging girl’s education, relieving women from the drudgery of their daily lives.

Yet there are at least two programmes that are unique in their true social democratic spirit – Amma canteens and Amma baby care (ABC) kits.

Amma canteens

Amma unavagam (canteens) began small in 2013, but there were nearly 300 by 2014-15. These canteens provide food at a heavily subsidised price – Re 1 per idli, Rs 5 for sambar rice.

The canteens are well-maintained and the food is cooked in hygienic conditions. Public hygiene messages are displayed prominently. The canteen we saw was spotless and the all-women team had their heads covered. According to one survey (S. Thagamani and M. Maragatham) in Salem, nearly 60% of respondents felt that the canteens were clean.

Tamil Nadu may not be the first to have such canteens, but it is the only state which runs them on such a large scale.

In spite of the heavily subsidised prices, the annual cost for approximately 300 canteens serving 2.5 lakh people each day is estimated to be around Rs 100 crores. For perspective, this is twice as much as the reported cost of Telangana chief minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao’s new bungalow.

Community kitchens can be seen as part of a truly social democratic tradition because they are an important piece of the food security puzzle. Along with the destitute – for whom it serves as a lifeline – it is crucial for working people, especially in the informal sector, in urban areas.

Amma’s canteens serve as a price stabilisation measure at times of high inflation. The urban poor tend to be the worst hit at such times, with street food being their main option. The Thagamani and Maragatham survey in Salem reported that private eateries had to reduce their prices due to Amma canteens. This is sometimes cited as a criticism of the canteens but that only goes to suggest that they have been successful in controlling prices.

Like the mid-day meal scheme, Amma canteens have an important – if not immediately obvious – gender dimension. The canteens are primarily run by women, generating employment opportunities for them. Further, to the extent that women bear the primary responsibility for feeding family members, the availability of inexpensive, hygienic and nutritious options such as Amma canteens, relieves women of this domestic chore.

As pointed out elsewhere, Amma canteens create democratic spaces that are sorely required in our deeply divided society. There is nothing like sharing a meal with people from diverse backgrounds to foster a spirit of togetherness. Anyone who has enjoyed a langar at a Gurudwara should be able to appreciate this sentiment.

Jayalalithaa’s second unique contribution is the ABC kits – a scheme that made a relatively quiet start in 2015. ABC kits include a towel, a mattress, mosquito nets, soap, nail cutter and other items that a new mother might need. The ABC kit is designed to promote health and hygiene for the mother and child. In 2015-16, the state allocated Rs 86 crores to the ABC kit project. Being relatively new, ABC kits are not very well-researched yet.

These kits – more commonly known as ‘baby boxes’ – were first tried in Finland and are common in the Scandinavian countries. In Finland, the initiative dates back to 1938, when it was a poor country and it became universal only in 1949 through a legislation. Some have even credited baby boxes for Finland’s low infant mortality rate.

To praise some aspects of Tamil Nadu without explicitly acknowledging the problems is to invite trouble. Tamil politics suffers from most of the problems witnessed in other states, yet it has managed to substantially enhance well-being through state provisioning.

Democratic practice in Tamil Nadu is lacking in many ways  – Tamil politics is rightly criticised for “strong” leadership, the lack of internal party democracy and allegations of corruption abound. These criticisms apply to Jayalalithaa and her party too. Curiously though, the undemocratic culture at the top did not percolate down where there is still some space for critical feedback –and openness to demands from below appears to have remained intact.

An important message for political parties and leadership elsewhere in the country is that when politicians stand firm on people’s issues – a functional system for basic health and education, livelihood security, women’s rights, affirmative action – voters forgive betrayals, mistakes and regressive practices.