It’s 12.15 on a summer afternoon in Chennai, and I’m queueing up for lunch. The queue has an assortment of characters – a security guard in uniform, a couple of young guys in shorts (who might well be IT professionals on an off day), and my neighbour’s house-help. I reach the end of the line in no time and have to pick from the menu of the day – Sambhar Rice, Curry Leaf Rice and Curd Rice. I opt for the curry leaf rice (Karuvapellai Satham). I flash a Rs100 note and receive Rs95 back.
For Rs5, I’ve just been served a plateful of rice that almost fills my tummy. Welcome to a chain of affordable eateries that has made most of India (at least politicians) sit up and take note. One look at the price list, and you might think you have time-travelled back to the 1980s. Amma Unnavagam (Amma Restaurant) began with a vision to provide low-cost meals for the public at large in 2013, and despite doubts about its sustainability, it has grown to a chain of over 200 outlets across Tamil Nadu’s urban centres and prompted visits by officials from other states, which are keen to replicate the model.
The menu is uncomplicated: idlis (Re1 each) and pongal for breakfast, three varieties of pre-mixed rice for lunch (the Sambhar Rice and Curd Rice that cost just Rs3 each are a constant, while the third dish is either a Lemon Rice or a Curry Leaf Rice), and chapattis (Rs3 for two) served with a complimentary dal for dinner.
A year after the first Amma Unnavagam (locals also refer to it as Amma Canteen or Amma Mess – the Amma is constant!) was flagged off, J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK swept the 2014 Lok Sabha polls winning 37 out of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. Was Amma Mess a catalyst? Seasoned political analyst Dr Sumanth C Raman doesn’t attribute Jayalalithaa’s winning streak to the Amma Canteens alone. “There are 234 constituencies in Tamil Nadu, and these canteens are not present in most of them.” But he believes that she could reap dividends during the upcoming Assembly elections in the urban pockets of Tamil Nadu.
In terms of government subsidies, an annual figure of Rs200-300 crore on the Amma Canteens might pale in comparison with the government’s other populist schemes that have taken state largesse to an unprecedented level. Figures released during the interim budget (in February 2016) peg the expense on free laptops (31.78 lakh units distributed since 2011) at Rs4,331 crore, while 1.76 sets of fans, induction stoves, mixies and grinders have cost a whopping Rs7,775 crore. While the government defends these seemingly uncontrolled spends with figures of the Tamil Nadu economy’s robust growth – at $150 billion (GSDP), it is the second largest state economy in India, these arguments have not gone down well with activists like S Subramanian Balaji. Balaji, a lawyer, has been vehemently opposing state-sponsored freebies, arguing that these are really bribes in disguise.
I’m not sure Kaniappan, an auto driver, who I bumped into at the Amma Canteen will agree with Balaji. He is an Amma Canteen regular and claims his food bill has been slashed by about Rs2,000 every month; money that he now shares with his family in a village near Chengalpattu. The concept of a free meal is not new to Tamil Nadu. Government records suggest that a noon meal scheme existed in 1923, in the days of the British Madras Presidency, and that this scheme benefited quite a few schools in the city. The National School Act, the bedrock of America’s subsidised and free lunch programme in schools, was signed into law by Harry Truman only in 1945. In the early 1960s Congress chief minister K Kamaraj introduced a midday meal scheme that began in Chennai, and eventually spread to the districts. But the big thrust finally arrived in 1982 with the launch of MG Ramachandran’s now legendary Sathunavu Thitam (nutritious noon meal scheme) that didn’t just make the free lunch more nutritious with an egg in the mix, but images of MGR dining with school children have left an indelible impact on the state. This scheme has been successfully implemented by successive governments in Tamil Nadu, and 12 other states replicated it in the 1990s.
Tamil Nadu seems to have set the benchmark as far as populist schemes go. Annadurai started the subsidised rice initiative in 1967; Karunanidhi came up with the free television scheme that many pollsters believe helped the DMK win a close election in 2006; and Jayalalithaa, too, got into populist mode with the free laptop scheme.
While subsidised rice has been a part of the state landscape, the Amma Canteen was a masterstroke that helped the lower middle-class combat growing ingredient and fuel costs. The smile on the face of one of the canteen staff answered my questions about the sustainability of the Amma Unnavagam. She might not have an opinion on the cost of the multi-crore subsidy that keeps these canteens alive, but she is proud of the feedback she receives from her customers.
“We work in three shifts and make sure the restaurant and kitchen are handed over to people on the next shift in a squeaky clean condition.” She asks me if I enjoyed the Curry Leaf Rice, and insists I sample some Sambhar Rice. Like any good restaurant manager, she quizzes me if I will come back. I have heard mixed feedback about the Amma canteens. Apparently, some of them are not clean, and some are known to serve substandard fare, but my second Amma Canteen experience delivered more bang for the buck than most eateries. It was no fancy meal, it was a working lunch; and that’s what it is was envisioned to be.