On August 16, the Karnataka government launched 101 canteens, called Indira canteens, that serve subsidised food across Bengaluru. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi inaugurated the first outlet in Jayanagar, stating that the canteens will be particularly useful for migrants and would go a long way to eradicate urban hunger. “No person in Bengaluru should ever go hungry and the canteens are a great means towards it,” he is reported to have said.

The Rs 100 crore initiative aims to serve hygienically prepared nutritious food in atleast 198 wards that come under the jurisdiction of the city’s civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike.

In these canteens, breakfast dishes cost Rs 5 a plate. Idli and upma are a staple on the morning menu, with rice dishes of pongal, kesari bath and khara bath available occasionally. Flavoured-rice, sambhar and curd rice is the lunch and dinner meal at Rs 10 per plate. The freshly-prepared meals will be supplied from 27 centralised kitchens. The state government is planning to launch more outlets in around 98 wards on October 2, to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

The similarity between the Indira canteens programme and the populist, low-budget Amma Unavagam (canteen) initiative launched by the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in the neighbouring state is unmistakable. Indeed, Gandhi too had to correct himself a couple of times during his speech when he referred to the Karnataka initiative as Amma canteens.

Several policy analysts and economists have held up the Tamil Nadu initiative as an example of a successful low-budget welfare measure. But four years after its launch, have Amma canteens maintained their standards? And will Bengaluru’s Indira canteens replicate their success?

Success of Amma canteens

Launched in February 2013 in Chennai, with around 15 canteens, the Amma canteens initiative was quickly scaled up to 200 canteens in the city within three months. The success of the scheme led to the opening of 10 budget restaurants in nine other cities across the state: Madurai, Coimbatore, Tiruchirapalli, Tirunelveli, Salem, Tiruppur, Tuticorin, Vellore and Erode.

The Amma canteens were introduced as a measure to tackle urban hunger by providing nutritious food prepared in an hygenic atmosphere at highly subsidised rates. In these canteens, one idli is sold at Re 1, curd rice at Rs 3 and sambar rice at Rs 5. Women from local self-help groups were employed to cook and serve the food.

“The hallmark of Amma Unavagam lies in its innovative design of coopting SHGs [Self-Help Groups] from local slum settlements in running and managing these canteens,” wrote researcher Mani Arul Nandhi in her case study on Amma canteens. “In the process of ensuring food security through subsidised cooked food, these community kitchens have generated regular employment and remunerative wages to the SHG members. The outcome of Amma Unavagam scheme is not only limited to mitigating food insecurity but create livelihood security for destitute women thus enabling inclusion of marginalised slum dwellers into formal sector employment.”

Amma canteens were Jayalalithaa’s prime welfare programme, and were the main pitch in her successful reelection campaign in 2016. Last September, another 107 canteens were opened at a cost of Rs 18.99 crore, reported The Hindu. This added to the existing 300 canteens.

“The canteens are located at certain vantage points like opposite a government hospital or next to a bus stop, where the poor and the vulnerable frequent,” said J Jeyaranjan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “They are a boon for the urban poor and migrant workers, for whom one of the major issues is food security.”

Jayaranjan added that single migrant workers, who have left behind access to the Public Distribution System, rely on small eating joints in cities that cater to them. “They have no state support and are thrown at the mercy of the market,” he said.

But though canteens offer a cheaper and more hygienic alternative for the urban poor, they also compete with small joints and push-cart vendors selling food to these migrants in the city.

(Photo credit: PTI).
(Photo credit: PTI).

Amma canteens losing steam?

But do Amma canteens really benefit the people who really need subsidised food?

Between February 2015 and June 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General conducted an audit to assess whether Amma canteens were being operated efficiently in a sustainable manner. While noting that they were beneficial to slum dwellers, daily wage labourers and the poor, the audit found that no survey was conducted to identify the target beneficiaries and the provision of subsidised food to people indiscriminately had resulted in an extra financial burden to the municipal corporations that managed these canteens.

The audit also found that more than the allotted amount of resources were being used for the scheme. The report said:

“Though Government of Tamil Nadu decided to provide food items at subsidised rates, no budgetary support was being provided by the government except supply of rice at Rs 1 per kg. As a result, the Municipal Corporations had to bear the differential amount from their own funds.”

Despite its much-touted success, reports suggest that the Amma canteens scheme is now losing steam. Due to a severe funds crunch, the Chennai Corporation is considering shutting down over 200 canteens, reducing the total number from 407 to 200, reported The Hindu in July.

“The scheme was working well because of the heavy subsidy from the state government,” said Jayaranjan. “But somebody like Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi has to be in charge to actually implement it effectively.”

Can Indira match Amma?

Between 2001 and 2011, the population of Bengaluru grew by almost 48%. With the increasing influx of migrants in the state, about 14 lakhs of the city’s population of 85 lakhs live in slums.

“There is a huge migrant population in Bengaluru,” said Kathyayini Chamaraj of CIVIC, a non-governmental organisation. “For temporary migrants who have not procured a ration card in the city and are not eligible for free rice in the ration shop, the Indira canteens will be useful.”

The Anna Bhagya scheme started by the Karnataka government in Bengaluru gives 7 kg of food grains free of cost to all families below the poverty line. The Indira canteens are considered to be an extension of this scheme.

However, there is concern that the canteens might provide stiff competition for push-cart food vendors, affecting their livelihoods. Chamaraj felt that a better initiative would be to open more anganwadis across the state, thereby targeting malnourished children.

Waste of resources?

Then there are others who feel that the canteens are a waste of resources that could be better utilised elsewhere.

According to A Narayana, a researcher at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, the governments of both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were trying to find a solution for a problem that does not exist. “There is an informal economy to cater to the food needs, though it may not be as hygienic or nutritious,” said Narayana. “There is a huge opportunity cost in going ahead with this scheme.”

Narayana explained that on two consecutive days before the inauguration of the Indira canteens, Bengaluru faced a heavy downpour and even flooding in some areas. He said since the civic authorities were focusing on the inauguration of the canteens, they neglected other civic work such as preparation for the monsoon.

“The scheme is an extra burden on an already overburdened civic authority,” said Narayana. “They have not been doing the things that they are required to do. This was evident when the rains flooded half of Bangalore.”

However, the universality of the scheme is important for Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who has often been accused of promoting the interests of only certain caste groups and confining his welfare programmes to them. “The success of this particular scheme is therefore crucial to counter that kind of criticism,” said Narayana.