After your pocket, the AAP is now focused on your stomach. Taking a cue from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, the Amma of all welfare politics, the Delhi government has in principle cleared a proposal to have state-funded canteens that will provide meals at subsidised rates. These “aam aadmi canteens” are expected to be set up across the city in the next two months and will serve “safe, nutritious and delicious” food for Rs 5 and Rs 10. The proposal, populist as it may seem, makes eminent ethical and economic sense in a city that has a huge floating population of poor and often homeless labour.
Tamil Nadu’s Amma Unavagams, the model for the AAP canteens, serve three basic meals a day at subsidised rates and are a big hit with the state’s urban poor. They were launched in Chennai and then branched out to a few other cities and towns. There are now 225, and they cost the government Rs 65 crore annually. Good food is relatively expensive in the city and the urban poor, especially, tend to save on their food bill by compromising on quality, eating less or even skipping a meal or two altogether. Morbidity and early mortality among the working classes is a direct outcome of these compromises. A labour force that suffers from ill health will be less productive and, in turn, a burden on the economy. Any form of state intervention on this count is therefore welcome.
Government-sponsored outlets that serve affordable, hygienic and healthy food should be seen as an extension of the state’s welfare programme that has, so far, been limited to the public distribution system. Private enterprises and public institutions in the organised sectors of the economy run subsidised canteens for their employees. Amma and AAP canteens must be seen as a scaled-up state-funded welfare measure for the unorganised sector, which will, eventually, boost productivity and enable economic growth.