By Raghunath Nageswaran and William Liang
The Amma Unavagam (Amma Canteens) is a programme of government-subsidized canteens in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa, commonly referred to as Amma (mother), initiated the scheme in 2013.
Amma Canteens might be considered analogous to soup kitchens in the United States. Similar to them, these contribute to urban food security by offering 3 low-cost meals a day to anyone who wants them. For breakfast, the canteens sell idlis at Rs. 1 a piece and pongal rice for Rs. 5. Further, lunch offers the choice of sambar sadam (rice), lemon, or curry leaf rice for Rs. 5 and curd rice for Rs. 3 per plate. Chapattis are served for dinner at a price of Rs. 3 for two. Today, 300 canteens operate in Chennai alone, run and managed by the Chennai Corporation.
Mid-day Meals: Beginning of social reform
Tamil Nadu’s experimentation with state-sponsored social welfare programmes can be traced to K. Kamaraj’s introduction of the Mid-day Meal Scheme in schools.
This scheme hoped to create hunger-free classrooms, raise enrollment rates and arrest dropout numbers. By combining a nutritional programme with free universal school education, Kamaraj pioneered the idea of eradicating the twin starvations – food and intellectual. Because of his stature, his successors have continued to honour some of the ‘best practices’ he initiated during his stint as the Chief Minister of the state.
However, the honouring of these ‘best practices’ is normally confined to areas that are politically rewarding. Still, the very fact that the legacy remains relevant and resonates with the public is a phenomenal achievement. Thus, Dravidian politics, which had socialistic leanings with anti-Brahmanism forming its ideological underpinnings, set out on a trajectory that did not jettison the good aspects of social reform of its initial days.
The rise of populism
The people of Tamil Nadu have always rewarded the Dravidian political parties for their imaginativeness and implementation of welfare measures.
This is evident from the fact that barring the DMK and the AIADMK, no other party has governed the state since 1967. Further, these parties have normally kept the popular welfare measures of their predecessors.
With the emergence of a competitive political climate, ‘vote-bank’ compulsions have forced the parties to pander to undesirable forms of populism. However, delineating what is desirable and what isn’t is a tricky exercise, let alone ideological. Regardless, this need not stop us from appreciating the positive fallouts of the scheme in unequivocal terms. Further, it is equally important to anatomize the functioning of the canteens and pin down its flaws and downsides in an unqualified manner.
In their book, An Uncertain Glory, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and his colleague Jean Dreze, show their admiration for Tamil Nadu’s capacity to think creatively while framing active social policies. The public service delivery in Tamil Nadu is quite good, if not excellent. Commitment to ‘universalism’ has been the cornerstone of the social sector schemes in the state. The Mid-day Meal scheme, the Public Distribution System and Amma Unavagam all have universalism as their common denominator and that has helped plug the loopholes in the system.
Does it cost too much?
There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the cost of the programme in recent years. Many have heavily criticised Jayalalitha for using public funds for political gains by dishing out heavily subsidized programmes that will torpedo the state’s fisc. While a part of this allegation bears merit, an initiative like Amma Unavagam that provides quality food in hygienic conditions helps provide a respite against spikes in food prices. In the long term, it will help the vulnerable sections of the population fight ‘time poverty’ and has the potential to generate positive externalities in social, economic and political terms.
The state of Tamil Nadu has always been a trailblazer in the domain of ‘welfarism’. Vis-a-vis food security programmes, the state aims to create a populace that benefits in a number of different ways.
Thus, we need to take a step back and meticulously develop the larger context in which such schemes unfold. Without this distance, we might just miss the woods for the trees.
William Liang is an undergraduate student of Economics at the Yale University and Raghunath N has a Masters in Economics from Madras Christian College.
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