The Tamil Nadu government’s recent initiative affirms the value of affordable, nutritious meals for the working class.

Long before seven any morning in Chennai — and once again around noon — you will notice long lines of people outside the 200 recently opened Amma Canteens. Among the clients you find daily wage labourers, head-loaders, factory workers, security guards, domestic workers, auto-rickshaw drivers, street vendors and construction workers, interspersed with children. These community kitchens supply idlis with sambar at one rupee each, and 350 grams of sambar rice or pongal at Rs.5. The subsidy for each idli is 86 paise, and for sambar rice Rs.5. This subsidy is met by the Municipal Corporation, except the cost of rice which is supplied by the state government at one rupee a kilo. Adult male manual workers fill their stomachs for Rs.10, and women and children for Rs.5. In private eateries where they ate earlier, the same meal cost Rs.40-50.

In the last stages of its passage in Parliament, the government dropped from the National Food Security law provisions mandating all governments to establish community kitchens to serve affordable meals to migrants, unorganised workers and homeless people in cities. But this recent initiative of the Tamil Nadu government confirms the enormous value of affordable and nutritious food for working poor people in cities. Many are single male migrants forced to spend half to two-thirds of their daily earnings on only buying food, which is also usually unhygienic and of poor nutrition. This leaves little money for other needs. Street and working children are similarly compelled to spend their earnings on unhealthy food purchased from the streets. Homeless women and men have nowhere to cook food, and buy cooked food every day. By offering cheap, wholesome and hygienic meals, community kitchens secure their nutrition and free up a part of their earnings. Like the school meals first imagined by Kamaraj and MGR, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s community kitchens may one day show the way to the rest of the country.

Around one lakh people eat daily at the Amma canteens. Unlike almost every other government facilities, which serves only the poor in India — like public hospitals, government schools and hostels, public transport, homeless shelters, public toilets and so on — the interiors and services of the kitchens and canteens rival middle class commercial eating establishments: they are clean, cheerfully painted, well-lit and ventilated; women cooking and serving at the counters are uniformed with aprons, hair protection and plastic gloves; and free RO water is served to all customers. The food is not only inexpensive and clean, it is also tasty. Not surprisingly, then, college students, even bachelors from offices and the IT industry are found to also eat in these canteens.

Vikram Kapoor, the Chennai Municipal Commissioner, rolled out 200 Amma Canteens, which I rate to be one of the best-quality programmes I have seen for the poor, within months and plans to expand to 1000 in a few more months. He is quite clear that there should be no gate-keeping to target only the poor in these canteens. He estimates that around a tenth of the clients of the Amma Canteens is not poor but welcomes this because it ensures the dignity of the working-class customers. Like the much older Indian idea of the langar, the rich and poor eat together, safeguarding the community feeding programme from becoming a charity that robs the dignity of the hungry and the poor.

Every canteen is run by 16 women from a slum-based self-help group. Their daily wage is Rs.300 with one weekly day off. Rajita, formerly a home-maker, is delighted that she now earns as much as her husband. “And I have become an Annapoorni,” she said. “At home I fed just four people. Here I feed 400.”

During a recent visit to Chennai, I spoke to many customers in an Amma Canteen. Each affirmed that they ate here because the food was appetising and low cost. I asked them what they did with the money they saved by eating here, Rs.40-80 every day. A young construction worker said he gave the money he saved to his mother. His wife had died, and his two children were in a social welfare hostel. His mother spent all this extra money on educating and clothing his children. A janitor said he bought more vegetables for the evening meal. A flower-seller came to eat with her electrician husband. Their savings were double, and she proudly said she was sending her two children to college.

I met a small boy who came to the canteen to eat alone. His father was ‘loose’ (a local colloquialism for ‘mentally ill’), he explained to me. His mother was a domestic worker, and too poor to cook a full meal at home. But she gave him Rs.5 so that he could eat his only full meal at the canteen.