Last September, the National Food Security Act finally guaranteed two of every three Indians subsidised foodgrains. In fact it is the prolonged delay in its implementation that has led to ‘man-made starvation’, in the wake of the recent drought.
But with temperatures soaring above 40 degree Celsius nationwide – there is a slight glimmer of hope in some urban quarters.
Beyond Amma Canteens
Many state governments, entirely on their own initiative, have quietly begun to serve cooked food from their own coffers. Two years ago, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, launched the astutely named ‘Amma’ subsidised canteens.
Now, state satraps of all political shades are joining this populist bandwagon. The Congress party-led government in Uttarakhand has inaugurated the ‘Indira Amma canteens’. Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal has announced the cleverly named ‘Aam Aadmi’ canteens. Andhra Pradesh’s TDP has temporarily shelved the ‘Anna’ (after late NT Rama Rao) kitchens. But next-door Telangana’s TRP already serves nutritious meals.
Even poorer states have begun to dish out modest fare. Odisha’s Rs 5 Aahar kiosks have been extended to all rural districts. Chhattisgarh has enshrined its kitchens in law. Jharkhand has re-opened its Mukhyamantri Dal-Bhaat kendras.
Low Cost, High Value
The recipe for their success has been manifold.
First, strategic locations have been key. Tamil Nadu and Odisha have prioritised government hospitals to cater to caregivers. Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh have wisely chosen bus stands and train stations.
Second, the menus cater to local tastebuds. Amma canteens now serve a free glass of “nilavembu kudineer” (andrographis paniculata) to boost immunity, apart from idlis, pongal and rice dishes. Uttarkhand also offers local treats like jhangora kheer.
Third, the clientele is mixed which ensures quality. In Chennai office-goers routinely rub shoulders with labourers. In Jharkhand health workers break bread with farm labourers. Hyderabad serves the homeless, rag pickers, construction workers and even traffic police.
Fourth, the cooking arrangements vary. Women’s self-help groups serve 3 lakh people everyday in Tamil Nadu, while in Telangana and Rajasthan centralised kitchens have been roped in.
Crucially, most dishes do not cost more than Rs 5, to draw in the crowds. To sustain this, the subsidy ranges from a mere Rs 11 crores in Telangana to Rs 100 crore in Tamil Nadu. This is a small change compared to the Rs 60 crore in five years spent on Delhi’s exclusive Parliamentarian canteen.
History of Soup Kitchens
The scale of urban hunger is also not trivial. The 2011 Census records that atleast 2 of every 1000 urban Indians are homeless. At 9 p.m. on any night, drive by Delhi’s Yamuna Pushta flyover to see a bevy of homeless men waiting for leftovers from passerby cars. The Rs 18 meals at the nearby ‘Jan Aahar’ stalls are simply too steep.
India has had a long history of soup kitchens. In the fifties, Tamil Nadu launched the ‘Annapoorna Cafeterias’. Baba Adhav’s pioneering ‘Kashtachi Bhakar’ (food of toil) restaurants in Pune are also a model initiative. The langars at Sikh gurudwaras are also an inspiration.
Internationally, too, soup kitchens have existed since the Ottoman Empire. They were a lifeline during the Great Depression and the recent 2009 financial crisis across the developed world. Greeks too relied heavily on them during the 2014 debt crisis. Peru’s 10,000 “Comedores Populares” (cooperative kitchens) have infact expanded with each financial crisis. Brazil’s “Restaurante Popular” (citizen’s restaurants) have even been enshrined in law.
During the scorching 2003 Indian drought, journalist P. Sainath reported about the makeshift, charitable ‘gruel centres’ that had sprung up across villages in rural Andhra Pradesh to stave off widespread hunger.
So in the wake of the recent drought, Jharkhand has spread its canteens across 24 districts and has also started serving dinner. But, with almost half the country affected by drought, the question is − how many Indian states will similarly pick up the ladle?
The writer is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and an activist with the Right to Food Campaign