Launched amid fanfare, South India’s subsidized canteens remain neglected
In August 2017, former chief minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress made Karnataka the third state after Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to introduce subsidized canteens for the urban poor after he launched the Indira Canteens. In the years since, all three variants of the canteens have suffered because of government apathy.
The recent controversy over the canteens arose after outgoing commissioner of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike N Manjunath Prasad said last week that the civic body was not being given funds to run the canteens in Bengaluru.
Modelled on the Amma Canteen launched by former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, there are 191 canteens across Bengaluru that provide breakfast at Rs 5 and lunch and dinner at Rs 10 and have proved very popular among city residents, with an estimated 15 crore meals having been served over the past two years, according to the BBMP.
Additionally, there are 156 canteens across the state apart from mobile canteens in what was seen as Siddaramaiah’s push against hunger, as it was coupled with his Anna Bhagya scheme of free rice provision to the poor.
The move against the Indira Canteen drew swift reactions from the former chief minister, while BS Yediyurappa alleged massive corruption. However, the BJP has since had to double down and admit that it is not doing away with the scheme.
This has drawn sharp comments from Siddaramaiah, who accused Yediyurappa of not caring for the poor or addressing hunger. The former chief minister criticized Yediyurappa saying the state Budget was Rs 2.34 lakh crore, but the government couldn’t allocate even Rs 400 crore from this to run the canteens across the state.
To be sure, it isn’t just the BJP government that has neglected the scheme. Manjunath Prasad had, in fact, said that he had written to the previous Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government to increase the allocation for the scheme to Rs 210 crore, but there was no response.
Deputy chief minister CN Ashwath Narayan said that the BJP was only looking to address the complaints of corruption in the scheme. “There is no move to close the Indira Canteens at all. We are only looking to streamline it further by looking into the corruption,” he said.
This admission, though, rings hollow as Manjunath Prasad’s contention of funds not being allocated in Bengaluru remains unaddressed.
Bengaluru Mayor Gangambike Mallikarjun said that the BBMP was still maintaining the scheme though the chief minister had promised to release funds.
“At present, we are paying the monthly bills of the Indira Canteens, but there is no separate allocation,” Mallikarjun said. “The chief minister has promised to provide the Rs 210 crore required to run the scheme,” she added.
A change in regime has proved to be the undoing of the Anna Canteens in Andhra Pradesh as well. Launched by the previous Telugu Desam Party government to provide a sumptuous breakfast, lunch and dinner to the poor at a subsidized rate of Rs 5 a plate, these have been wound up with effect from August 1.
Operated by the Akshaya Patra Foundation, an NGO, the Anna Canteens were named after former chief minister and Telugu Desam Party founder N T Rama Rao who was fondly called as “Anna” (elder brother). They were first started on a pilot basis in Amaravati and surroundings in June 2016.
Initially, breakfast cost Rs 5 a plate; lunch Rs 6.50-7.50 per plate and dinner Rs 7.50 a plate. This was later changed with the lunch and dinner price fixed at Rs 5 as well. The TDP government had also provided permanent infrastructure including a pucca building and mineral water plant to supply clean and safe water at the canteens that came up in as many as 204 places.
However, all of them have shut shop now. The YSR Congress party government headed by Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy suspected corruption in the construction of buildings and provision of infrastructure for the canteens. “The previous TDP government had launched the canteens hurriedly without any planning to appease voters by painting them yellow, indicating their party colour.
We shall streamline them and make them more effective,” minister for municipal administration Botsa Satyanarayana said.
Though the YSRC government promised to restart the canteens shortly, there is little evidence of this, even though municipal authorities have repainted the canteens white.
TDP general secretary and MLC Nara Lokesh, son of party president N Chandrababu Naidu, lashed out at the Jagan government for winding up Anna canteens. He tweeted that the decision was taken only for political reasons. “Mr Chief Minister, hunger doesn’t know politics. Should the poor go hungry for your political vendetta against us?” he asked.
The Amma Canteens, which was the pioneer, faces a different problem. Launched with fanfare by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister late Jayalalithaa in 2013, the ‘Amma Unavagams’ (Amma Canteens) have now lost their sheen due to official apathy and lack of the required patronage, despite her party still being in power.
With idlis for one rupee per piece, Chappathi at Rs 1.50 and rice varieties for Rs three, the low-cost canteens had a huge base of regular customers. But that is not the case anymore and the canteens have been allowed to languish.
Started initially with 200 canteens, there are 407 now in urban centres across the state, which are run by the local bodies. Except those set up near the Government Hospitals in Chennai and other cities, the canteens elsewhere in the state sport a desolate look.
The Canteens were part of a slew of government schemes named after “Amma” like the Amma Community Halls, Amma Scheme, a single-window grievance redressal programme of the Revenue Department, and Amma Theatres, which are yet to see the light of the day.
Catering to the poor and migrant labourers as well as bachelors scouting for jobs and those with a meagre income, the canteens earned the nickname of the poor man’s Saravana Bhavan. Each one of the canteens is being run by Women Self Help Groups of the area. From cooking to managing the expenses, it is they who run the show, while the government has entrusted the financial burden to the local bodies.
The income from these canteens, which was Rs 30.46 crore in 2017-18, had decreased to Rs 27.05 crore in the subsequent year. In the 2019-20 budget, the income estimate for the current fiscal had been pegged at Rs 29.40 crore.
“Till Jayalalithaa was there, AIADMK functionaries elected to the civic bodies took an active interest in these canteens. Now, their term is over and elections have not been held for the local bodies for over two years,” bemoans a woman working at the Amma canteen in Choolaimedu, Chennai.
The SHG members also complain that their wages have remained stagnant for the last six years. “It is Rs 300 per day in Chennai and Rs 250 in other places, which is insufficient, considering the workload. We have to come at 5 am and work till 1 pm. Further, it is difficult to look after our families since the shifts have been cut into two from three,” said a woman at a canteen in Kodambakkam.
Most of the canteens lack proper infrastructure though the government had earmarked Rs 12.7 core for improving the facilities.