Amma Canteens show the way to others

Amma canteens have been offering affordable cooked meals completed two years

UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) states eradicating poverty and extreme hunger as one of its eight goals. States across the world are contemplating implementable, low cost, sustainable programmes to attain MDG. The Amma canteens that offer nutritious, hygienic and affordable hot cooked meals in wards of all Tamil Nadu municipal cities (plus many in government-run hospitals) have completed over two years now.

Empirical data have emerged to show that Amma Canteen is one well iterated template that can be replicated in some 2,000 global cities that can directly aid the productivity growth of millions of poor and migrant labourers who have made it to cities for their basic sustenance. Cities are often seen as the hubs of economic growth. Mass deployment of digital technology, application of satellite and telecommunication tools, proper literacy initiatives and pervasive democracy has eliminated the virtual divide.

Yet many basic necessities still remain out of reach of a section of urban society thus widening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. One of the biggest challenges in cities today is to provide for the teeming population of poor but able citizens with adequate calories that can render them fit to work for their wages. The private sector cannot take up this cause as the associated establishment costs are unaffordable. Restaurants world over have always eliminated the bottom quarter percentile of the population because they cannot afford their menu, which is half rental costs anyway.

This is where a municipal corporation or a state department can play a major role to minimise or even eliminate establishment costs in delivering mass nutrition to people. Earlier, governments struggled with their food security programmes operating with rickety infrastructure and leaky systems to bring provisions to PDS stores periodically at affordable costs. Tamil Nadu which was an early adopter of IT in its PDS already had strong institutional delivery capabilities that minimised wastage and leaks. The next step was to evolve the PDS infrastructure from a food security programme to a nutrition security programme that took it closer to the stated goal of citizens with no hunger pangs.

When the Government led by Ms J Jayalalithaa took over in 2011, it faced a mammoth task. Almost 60 per cent of the state was urbanised and non agrarian jobs had come to be the main stay of people’s earnings. With a good state transport network in place, people were willing to commute to nearest municipal towns daily to take up work. Such a lifestyle left a gaping hole in the nutrition requirements of its population.

It was because of this compelling need to bridge this gap that the Amma Canteens sprang up. Using quality labour sourced from women self help groups, basic infrastructure from local bodies, hygienic water supply, the Amma Canteens grew from strength to strength. Now it is an integral part of TN cities like Chennai that attracts policy makers and implementers not only from other Indian cities but also from developed nations like Germany and US.

Macro to micro state: Hafeez is a migrant construction labourer from the Asansol district of West Bengal. He came as an 18-year-old job seeker in 2006 to Chennai and with rampant inflation could never have sufficient food any day. His days revolved around the benevolence of his employer who himself struggled because of the then poor economic conditions. Early 2012, he was about to leave his work and try his luck in any other city with his semi skilled abilities.

When the first Amma Canteen was started in February 2012 in Chennai, he could suddenly hope to make a decent living in Chennai. He could have three square meals a day for a paltry '20 and could save a decent sum for his marriage. Now Hafeez is married and well settled in Chennai. His wife is also employed with the same construction firm and they have a child who attends the state run anganwadi.

Ranjani, a class 2 student is another beneficiary. Her father is an auto rickshaw driver and her mother a house help, and neither have sufficient time in the morning to cook for her. Amma Canteen comes to her rescue. She has breakfast at the nearest Amma Canteen and for lunch, there is always the ever popular mid day meals and that too far more nutritious and enriched in this government than ever before.

The real story of these two lives are not mere stories of ‘food for stomach’, but just two voices representing the many from the lower strata of society whose lives have become stable as the state took care of one of their basic necessities. The intention of Amma Canteens was not to merely provide food at a subsidised cost, but to improve the socio economic status of financially challenged people. What is seen today is the result of a long term vision that looked above and looked further into the development of the nation, by caring for its citizens.

Time to go national: Tamil Nadu as the most progressive state in the country has never shied away from state intervention in times of need. The state has shown the Amma Canteen way to mitigate the terrible food crisis faced by the ultra poor. It is time this model is replicated in other states as well. Such an initiative can add significant percentage points to the overall GDP growth too as the beneficiary of an Amma Canteen might be your car driver also.

(The writer is a digital entrepreneur)

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