Idly & Sambhar : Tamil Nadu’s latest freebies
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com


Last week the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu inaugurated dozens of new Amma canteens across Tamil Nadu’s biggest cities. The menu features some of most common items found in restaurants of the state. The canteens themselves are run by women’s self-help groups – a mini co-operative like arrangement with adequate provision for siphoning or channeling money (for good causes and public benefit of course). Now to the highlights: food in these canteens is cheap; in fact it’s so cheap that it’s almost free.

Idlies are sold for just 1 rupee each. Pongal and other delicacies cost no more than Rs. 5. A person could have a very good breakfast for all 30 days in a month in these canteens and not end up spending more than Rs.300. To put things in context: a daily labourer could have his breakfast and dinner for the entire month without spending more than three days’ wages. The average daily wage labourer earns Rs. 300 per day in urban areas and at-least Rs. 200 in rural areas. Wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme are Rs. 132 per day.

Needless to say the canteens have been a massive hit in Chennai where it was introduced first and is certainly set to be patronized heavily in other cities where it is being introduced now. This government entry into the state’s quick serve restaurant industry was originally meant as a populist measure. Its aim was to shore up Jayalalithaa’s sagging public image that had taken a beating due to long power cuts, rising inflation and a bad monsoon. It doesn’t help the Chief Minister in rural areas but for what it is worth the scheme has generated some chatter in urban areas.

Are these canteens worth the expenditure? There is no data concerning how much the government is spending for these canteens but it may be safely assumed that a few dozen crores would be needed to run these heavily subsidized canteens in just Chennai alone. But you should remember this is a state that spends a few hundred crores on free color televisions, grinders and ceiling fans.

It is also important to remember (and concede) that the new Amma canteens are very clean and make an effort to carry out their operations in a hygienic manner. The demographic that Jayalalithaa targets with these canteens generally go to restaurants where hygiene and health are the first casualty. Roadside restaurants in push-carts and crumbling buildings are, despite the urban charm being attached to them, quite a disaster when it comes to cleanliness. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that this is perhaps the first time the urban working classes have had the chance to buy affordable, healthy food in an aesthetically decent place. I heard auto-drivers and daily wage laborers of Chennai say the same during a visit to the city.

A populist scheme of this sort is hard to oppose. The instinctive reaction of an English speaking upper-middle class tax payer in Tamil Nadu might be to deride the scheme as a particularly denigrating dole-out. The slightly more informed (and vain) are debating the merits of government entry into the quick-service restaurant industry. Wouldn’t other small restaurant owners be under severe strain and unfair competition?

The push-cart food vendors are still doing well but there is some threat to business from Amma canteens if the government were to put up more canteens. And that is precisely what Jayalalithaa is getting ready to do. With 2.5 lakh idlies and about 1 lakh plates of rice being sold every day in Chennai canteens alone there is no doubt that the running of these canteens will now move to industrial scale and style.

Despite the cynicism the fact is government run canteens or meal provision services are themselves not a bad idea. In-fact the mid-day meals scheme introduced first in Tamil Nadu, and now being implemented across India, are a great way to address malnutrition (and school attendance) head on. In many states the idea of school or kids meals and other such schemes will only produce positive externalities.

However the relevance of such a canteen across all major towns in Tamil Nadu is limited to populism of a reckless kind.

The public distribution system in the state is fairly effective. Rice, wheat and pulses are sold at heavily publicized rates. In-fact every adult can receive up to 4kg of rice free of cost, besides other schemes make available rice at Rs. 2 per kg. With the mid-day meals scheme addressing nutrition issues for school going kids the only demographic not addressed are the elderly citizens.

Jayalalithaa is generally seen to be a politician who understands virtue of fiscal discipline. Twice it has fallen to her to repair the state government’s treasury by hiking tariffs and rates after the previous DMK regime would leave behind nothing more than empty coffers and unpaid bills.

When she offered mixers and grinders as freebies where DMK had earlier offered television sets it was hailed as a move that would at-least benefit the mixer-grinder manufacturers of the state. Last elections she announced milch animals as give-away freebies and there is some indication that it might have been useful in supplementing rural incomes. And milch animals reproduce. So perhaps this give-away might have some long term effect in terms of milk and meat production. Not bad. If we must give away something for free they better be something (re)productive!

Today Amma canteens are being hailed as the matriarch’s answer to the union government’s disastrous Food Security Bill (FSB). It was never Jayalalithaa’s intention to ‘counter’ the FSB – despite the merits the canteens were an exercise in base populism and a bit of motherly vanity.

Tamil Nadu is notorious for being pioneer of freebies. A lot of Dravidian electoral innovations have been replicated across the country including free give away of television sets and laptops. To be fair, the mid-day meals which were pioneered in Tamil Nadu have been a great success but god forbid Akhilesh Yadav or Mamata Bannerjee taking to running such canteens in places where they are least needed. This is a fad we can do without.