Looking south for inspiration, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government announced last week a scheme for making low-cost meals available to the urban poor. On the lines of the popular Amma Canteens in Tamil Nadu, AAP claims it will launch “Aam Aadmi Canteens” all over Delhi where nutritious breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served for as little as Rs 5 and Rs 10.

The Aam Aadmi Canteens, which chief minister Arvind Kejriwal wants to launch within two months, are an attempt to trump former CM Sheila Dikshit’s Jan Aahar Yojana stalls, where meals cost Rs 18.

Populist food schemes for low-income urban masses are not new. Several states have attempted similar schemes, where the government provides heavily subsidised food grains and other material to stalls run by local non-profits or self-help groups, so that freshly cooked meals can be sold to the poor at low rates.

Not all of these schemes, however, have been successful. In Maharashtra, for instance, the Zunka Bhakar scheme was brought in with much fanfare by one government, and promptly kicked out by the next (though not without a fight). In Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, the Amma Canteens that Kejriwal wants to emulate have been widely touted as a successful welfare scheme despite questions raised by political rivals.

How Zunka Bhakar canteens died out...

In 1995, the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra opened more than 6,000 low-cost canteens across Maharashtra in a scheme named after a popular local dish: Zunka Bhakar.

The aim of the scheme was to provide simple, nutritious food to daily wage workers and the urban poor at an extremely subsidised rate: one rupee for a plate of zunka (gram flour curry) and bhakar (jowar or bajra roti). The state government allotted land to set up small Zunka Bhakar stalls that it gave to unemployed citizens to run.

It took four years for the scheme to hit major roadblocks. Soon afterwards, the Congress-NCP government came into power in 1999. It stopped the grants for subsidies to Zunka Bhakar stall owners. Even during the Shiv Sena's rule, there had been complaints that meals were not being sold at the promised one-rupee rate, but the new government claimed that the scheme was riddled with many irregularities. Not only had stall owners increased the price of the subsidised food, many were also treating Zunka Bhakar centres as fast-food restaurants stocked with other food and drink, and some had further sub-let their stalls at substantial rents.

In 2000, the government decided to scrap the scheme, and a group of stall owners retaliated by taking the government to the Bombay High Court on the grounds that the state was snatching away their livelihoods. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which upheld the state government’s decision in 2006.

“Ending our Zunka Bhakar scheme was nothing but a political move,” said Arvind Sawant, a Shiv Sena parliamentarian from Mumbai, dismissing the alleged “irregularities” in the scheme. If stall owners were selling additional fast-food items on their menu, he says, it was only because the one-rupee meals did not bring them enough revenue to survive. “Many of the stalls were run very well by our own people. I’m not saying there were no black sheep, but there was no need to shut down the whole scheme.”

The Zunka Bhakar scheme was officially called off in 2007, with the government cancelling licences of around 801 stalls owners. Despite this, several restaurants and canteens in Mumbai running in place of the stalls still display the ‘Zunka Bhakar’ brand name on their boards.

...but Amma Canteens are working

Named after the popular appellation for chief minister J Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu’s Amma Unavagam scheme has been winning praise from several quarters since its launch in 2013. At the Amma Canteens in Chennai and nine other cities in the state, idlis are available for Re 1, curd-rice for Rs 3 and a plate of sambar-rice for Rs 5.

In Chennai itself, there are more than 225 canteens run by women’s self-help groups and subsidised at both the city and state level. The civic corporation incurs an annual cost of Rs 65 crore to run the canteens, while the state government provides 750 tonnes of subsidised rice to the city each month.

The scheme, though massively popular, hasn’t been blame-free. In April, the city corporation’s opposition leader, M Bhuvaneswari, alleged that each canteen in Chennai had been running at a loss of at least Rs 2.1 crore, which would add up to be too much for the city’s exchequer.

Chennai’s civic chief, however, believes the expense is as justified as any other government welfare scheme, including the provision of subsidised water, power and transport. “The canteens feed at least two lakh people from the poorest sections of the city every day, so I would say that Rs 65 crore is not a big amount for the corporation to bear,” said Vikram Kapur, the commissioner of Chennai’s municipal corporation.

The very name of the Amma Canteens would suggest that they’re sustained by the popularity of the chief minister, but Tamil Nadu – economist Amartya Sen has pointed out – has a history of delivering efficient public services. The mid-day meal scheme that is now implemented in government-run schools across the country, for instance, had first been initiated in Tamil Nadu.

“A genuinely good scheme that is welcomed by the public is likely to continue irrespective of the government that is in power,” said Kapur.