KEERTHI NATHAN | 7 MAY, 2020
Amma Canteens: A Savior for the Urban Poor in Lockdown
“I’d rather die of the disease than hunger”
The nationwide lockdown posed a grim reality for the working class population, especially those who come under the informal sector and depend on daily wages. I intend to highlight an aspect of which I came across this morning.
There is an Amma Canteen situated a little distance from my place which serves the locality of Kandanchavadi in Chennai. I have seen thin to moderate crowds in the canteen since the day it was opened a couple of years ago. But today, during one of my essential trips to the grocery shop during this time of lockdown, I witnessed a large crowd gathered outside the canteen.
It was a little surprising for me, as I used to pass by this place and till date I had never seen a crowd like this. That said, people were standing patiently in a well organised queue, maintaining distance.
It was well beyond 9 in the morning but I was curious and decided to initiate a conversation with someone who was just exiting the canteen after finishing his breakfast.
Vanakkam I said, but he didn’t seem to understand me and looked perplexed. I realized that he doesn’t understand Tamil. He was a migrant labourer from Bihar working in the construction of the World Trade Centre tower nearby.
I’d studied in Delhi and knew basic Hindi, because of which I was able to have a conversation in a language we both understand (much to his surprise).
He told me that he was forced out of work due to the sudden lockdown imposed by the Government as the construction of the towers came to a halt. There were many like him who didn’t have the means to return back home and decided to stay back here (sealed borders and the suspension of public transport including trains played a role).
They were fortunate to have these Amma Canteens which have been a lifesaver for people like him who depend on the food served here daily since the lockdown was imposed. My conversation with him ended there after he received a phone call, probably from his family back home in Bihar. I’d forgotten to ask him his name, alas. I proceeded to my destination after the conversation, which seemed incomplete. I had a lot of questions on my mind.
I remember watching a news report on a TV channel where a reporter on the spot was witness to people walking home in large numbers. Sticking a mike in the face of a migrant worker walking back to his hometown from New Delhi, the reporter asked why - when there was a strict nationwide lockdown - was there a need to walk such a large distance back home?
The migrant worker exclaimed: “I’d rather die of the disease than hunger”.
And hence, the ever so important question of providing food to the marginalized in times of a crisis like this comes up. It is perhaps too late for governments to realize now that the availability of food to the poor in times of crisis should be the priority if they really want to practice total lockdown in its truest terms.
What prompts these long journeys on foot? The scenario is going to be the same once they reach their native villages with no jobs or work or money. But at least the thought of getting food will provide some relief (thanks to their local PDS ration cards which can guarantee them rations at subsidized rates), and perhaps - a network of family that will help each other get by.
But for those still stuck in cities, Amma Canteens provide respite - as they serve food to the urban poor - the working class and daily wage employees who have been left without work, shelter or food because of the lockdown.
It is worth noting here that the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J.Jayalalithaa had stormed back to power in the 2011 Assembly Elections thanks to her populist schemes such as the Amma Unavagam (Amma Canteen). This initiative secured her the support of daily wage earners as they were the biggest benefactors of this scheme.
The Amma Unavagam promised Idly for ₹1, Pongal (Khichdi) for ₹5, Sambar rice, Lemon rice for ₹5 and Curd rice for ₹3. And till date, the rates for these items have never been revised.
The scheme had become so popular that many of the State Governments started to take a serious note of it. The Congress government in Karnataka (2013) was quick to follow and came up with Indira Canteen with the same concept of serving subsidized food to the poor and soon enough the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh also implemented the same idea in their states with different names.
In fact the CM of Tamil Nadu, Mr. Palanisamy in his recent presser claimed that his government is ready to open more Canteens and serve meals to many more people, in light of the present scenario. It has been reported that there’s an increase of 30% of people eating at the Amma Unavagam during this period of lockdown.
I must say that the scheme of Amma Canteens is a boon to many people like the gentleman I met in the morning. Perhaps Jayalalithaa was a visionary and way ahead of her time by ensuring the opening up of Amma Canteens which now cater to people from all sections of society, especially in times of crisis like this. And not to forget the Shiv Bhojan Thali which was started on a pilot basis in Maharashtra (by the Uddhav Thackeray government) with a price of ₹10 for a lunch thali. It has since then halved its price during this time of lockdown.
Amma Unavagam and many such canteens in other parts of the country have indeed become saviors for many in such tumultuous times.