The Amma Unavagam has evoked several questions, among experts as well as the people. Many ask if they can be sustained, leave alone scaled up. They ask: “How long can the municipal corporations run the show? Are they doing this at the cost of any of their regular schemes? Should a municipal corporation enter the business of hospitality?”

Officials say that if municipal corporations can run hospitals and nurture plants, why not restaurants, they ask? They contend that the initiative should be seen as an anti-poverty measure. For them, the Unavagam is yet another welfare measure.

On the financial implication of the Unavagam programme, officials point out that this factor is not a major constraint. The Chennai Corporation, which has a budget of around Rs. 3,000 crore, is in a position to absorb any additional burden, they say. The cost burden of the 200 restaurants is around Rs. 18 crore per year.

If the number of restaurants is increased to 1,000, as desired by the Chief Minister, the cost may reach Rs. 90 crore. For the whole State, the outgo would be Rs. 150 crore – a small price for feeding at least 8 to 10 lakh poor people every day. “When the State government devolves Rs. 4,700 crore to the urban local bodies, this burden should be manageable,” says a senior official.

Government representatives point to the lateral benefits. Apart from the price stabilisation factor, the Unavagam programme has compelled some private restaurants to begin offering a variety of menu, free of cost, to retain their customers. For instance, if these eateries earlier provided two varieties of ‘chutney’ for ‘idli’ or ‘dosa,’ they are giving four.

Amma Unavagams promote hand washing before food consumption. Providing hygienic food is one of the essential elements of the programme, the officials emphasise. This is evident from the way two women-staff of the Velachery Unavagam tell the customers to leave their footwear outside the restaurant as wearing footwear inside is not allowed – an advisory printed in bold at the notice board of the Velachery centre.

Average daily expenses in Chennai: Rs. 14 lakh

Rice - Rs, 11,670

Labour - Rs. 8,40,000

Fuel - Rs. 2,26,000

Other components - Rs. 3,22,000

Average daily revenue in Chennai: Rs. 9 lakh