The state that pioneered the successful noon-meal scheme may just have cooked up the next big idea.

In his latest book, 'An Uncertain Glory - India and its contradictions', economist-philosopher and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has devoted almost ten pages to sing Tamil Nadu’s praise for its efficient delivery of public services.

“Tamil Nadu’s capacity for innovation and creative thinking in matters of public administration is an important example for the entire country,” say Prof. Sen and Jean Dreze in their book (pp. 174). Indeed, the authors point out that Tamil Nadu (and Kerala) would be at the top of South Asian comparisons in social indicators if they were treated as separate countries.

For those living in Tamil Nadu, the lofty praise in the book is not surprising for it is true indeed that the state is efficient in delivery of public services, be it the public distribution system, health care or school education. This was, after all, the state that pioneered the noon meals scheme in schools back in the eighties, which Prof. Sen praises as creative thinking in his book.

A rupee for an idli

The latest example of such creative thinking is the Amma Unavagam (canteen) idea of chief minister, Ms. Jayalalithaa. Started six months ago, the canteens offer staple food items such as idlis, sambar rice, pongal and curd rice at heavily subsidised prices. Idlis are sold at a rupee each while sambar rice and curd rice cost Rs.5 and Rs.3 a plate respectively. And these are not small portions. Each idli weighs 100 gms while the rice plates are of 350 gms each.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then going by the thronging crowds, these canteens — 200 of them in Chennai alone, plus in 9 other cities/towns in Tamil Nadu — are quite popular indeed. They open for breakfast in the morning and again for lunch; soon they will be open for dinner too. The best part of these canteens is that they are clean and efficient, run by women self-help groups (SHG) who are provided rations by the state.

And it is not just the neighbourhood watchman, maid and rickshaw-puller that patronise it; even middle-class office-goers seem to vote for these canteens if newspaper reports are anything to go by. For any doubts google “amma canteen” and read the different newspaper reports to understand how satisfied the man on the street is by this novel concept. This is a very interesting thing indeed and proves that universalism is an important component of any social sector scheme.

Vote for universalism

Tamil Nadu has always voted for universalism, be it in PDS or health care or education. Thus the targeted PDS, heralded with much fanfare a few years ago, was withdrawn quickly from the state after protests erupted. The mid-day meal scheme in government schools is also a universal programme and so are other schemes such as the health insurance scheme started by the previous DMK government and expanded by the present one to a larger, more successful programme.

It is always easy to buy support from salaried tax-payers for social sector schemes when they perceive a benefit from them. By offering good quality food in a clean, hygienic environment and importantly keeping them open to everyone, the Amma canteens have won that battle as the middle-class perceives it as something that it can benefit from. Whether they use the benefit is another matter; what’s important is the perception.

That the state government is subsidizing these canteens heavily is saying the obvious. According to a newspaper report, the average spend by one such canteen on vegetables and others ingredients is Rs.5,000 a day and this is not including the main items of rice and pulses. We will have to wait for the next state budget to get a clear estimate of the outlay on these canteens. But whatever the outlay may be, the canteens seem to be an efficient way of reaching food subsidy to the deserving. There are also no leakages of subsidized food grain to worry about.

I know that I’m sticking my neck out but for a poor family, the canteen is probably a better option for cheap, nutritious food compared to cooking at home.

For a daily wage labourer, paying Rs.19 a day for a breakfast and lunch of 6 idlis, two plates of sambar rice and a plate of curd rice is probably a better option than buying PDS grain, vegetables, pulses, oil and fuel and cooking food at home which involves a higher outlay of money and time. When these canteens start offering dinner from next month and an expanded menu including chapattis, the options will become even better.

Quite apart from this, the canteens also help women SHGs earn a living — 12 women to a canteen and each paid Rs.250–300 a day. The challenge though will be in expanding this scheme to cover the whole state, including the smaller townships. That is when it will become difficult to monitor and maintain quality and prevent leakages from the system.

But if the Jayalalithaa government can find a way to expand the concept successfully and sustain it over time, then it is sure to reap rich electoral dividends. Tamil Nadu, after all, has always rewarded politicians with successful social programmes that benefit the underprivileged; the Amma canteen has the potential to be one such. The state (and political party) that pioneered the successful noon-meal scheme may just have cooked up the next big idea.

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