Why govt-subsidised Amma, Indira canteens are lifesavers

ByReetika Khera
Aug 25, 2017 07:24 AM IST

After Tamil Nadu’s pioneering Amma canteens, many states have started community kitchens, such as Karnataka’s Indira Canteens. This is a welcome development.

The first coverage of the recently inaugurated “Indira canteens” in Karnataka that I noticed were two reports on television channels. Both were poking fun (justifiably) at Rahul Gandhi’s goofy speech at the launch. Sadly though, neither commented on the rationale or importance of the Karnataka government’s initiative. This was disappointing because ‘canteens’ (a variant of ‘community kitchens’) play an important role not just for “poor” people, but for others too.

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, state minister G. Parameshwara and senior Congress leader Venugopal taste the food after opening the subsidised eatery "Indira Canteen" in Bangalore on August 16, 2017(AFP)
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, state minister G. Parameshwara and senior Congress leader Venugopal taste the food after opening the subsidised eatery "Indira Canteen" in Bangalore on August 16, 2017(AFP)

Community kitchens (or canteens) need to be viewed more broadly than as a ‘food subsidy’ or even a ‘safety net’. There are several reasons for this: One, canteens are of immense value not only to the indigent but to working people too. Two, canteens are a useful response to a “market failure” (such as high inflation) in the market for street food. Fixed price meals can protect the urban poor from the brunt of inflation. Three, there is an important gender dimension to canteens. It provides respite to women from packing lunches (invariably this task falls on women) for working members of their families. Further, in several states (such as Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu), the canteens are run by women, providing them an opportunity for paid work. Four, community kitchens help in the creation of democratic public spaces, so sorely required in Indian society. Sharing a meal with people from diverse backgrounds fosters a spirit of togetherness.

Given these advantages to having canteens, the hostile coverage to Karnataka’s canteen initiative, is especially disappointing. Some commentators have evaluated them solely from the prism of government expenditure. Clearly, that is an inadequate lens through which to view canteens.

Canteens work well in urban contexts for migrant labourers, visitors in emergencies (due to illnesses, etc) and so on. In that sense, canteens are an important complement – thus far missing – to our existing framework of food security programmes. The National Food Security Act (NFSA) included four important programmes: The Public Distribution System (PDS), the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS or anganwadis) and finally, maternity benefits. Community kitchens, along with social security pensions, were part of an earlier proposal, but were eventually dropped due to fiscal concerns.

Apart from Karnataka; Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telengana are among the states which run canteens. Placing them near hospitals, bus stands and railway stations ensures that those in most need are able to access them easily. Think of all the district hospitals that attract poor patients from rural areas, barely able to afford medical care, who otherwise end up paying a lot for food.

Further, recent evidence from research in economics on similar schemes is quite encouraging. Several papers document the positive effects of the MDM scheme on enrolment, attendance, learning outcomes and nutrition. Even the PDS, which indeed suffered from high levels of corruption until the early 2000s, began to witness a turnaround in the past decade. Apart from a well-documented turnaround in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, we find a huge improvement in Madhya Pradesh too: In a small survey in 2013, respondents reported getting less than 40% of their entitlements, this rose to around 90% in follow-up surveys conducted in 2015 and 2016.

Of course, the financial aspect is important. Yet, the fiscal disciplinarians need to be reminded that there are two ways of reducing fiscal deficits. One, raising revenues by expanding the tax base and/or levying higher taxes. India’s income base has stagnated at around 3% of the population, while in other BRICS countries it is around 7-8%. Two, cutting costs is another way of reducing deficit. But where? Social spending in India remains too low in the international perspective. What the Supreme Court had said early on in the right to food case – ‘cut the flab elsewhere’ – still holds true.

The message from the states, across party lines, is clear: Community kitchens which provide subsidised ready-made meals fulfil a useful social and economic role. They are good use of taxpayers money.

Reetika Khera is associate professor (economics) at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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