A tale of two schemes

Now that the dust has settled on former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s funeral trail, it may be time to assess the legacies of the governance tactics she was most renowned for: the schemes for free or subsidised products and services that rolled out steadily from her personified governmental brand. The ‘Amma’ goodies, ranging from meals and water to laptops and pharmaceuticals, have been hailed or denounced depending on where one comes from, for their pro-poor, welfarist or “populist” character. Less debated have been their effects on long-term governance questions of distribution, institution-building, democracy, inclusion and sustainability.

The schemes are not monolithic. Their “benefits” range from basics like food and water to producer and consumer goods like seeds and kitchen appliances. Modes of provision vary between free and subsidised. Inevitably, their consequences differ. Take, for example, the contradictory repercussions of two schemes, the flagship Amma Unavagams or subsidised food centres, and the Amma Kudineer or drinking water schemes.

Enhancing inclusiveness

On Jayalalithaa’s funeral day, thousands of mourners, many from distant places, were fed at the canteens she had established. While shops, hotels and transport facilities across Chennai were shut down, most of the 200-odd canteens in the city stayed open, offering free meals as part of a week-long tribute to the departed leader. On December 12, when Cyclone Vardah battered Chennai, keeping most residents indoors, the canteens prepared hot meals for thousands of families sheltering in relief camps across the city. These actions were an apt encomium to one of Jayalalithaa’s most significant legacies to the city. Where MGR’s influential noon meal scheme drew children to schools, the Amma Unavagams emerge as an inspired intervention in enhancing the city’s inclusiveness.

The canteens, administered by City Corporations across Tamil Nadu, and operated by women’s Self Help Groups, employ between 4,000 and 5,000 women at daily wages of Rs.300. Their radically low-priced meals have not only generated an income effect of between Rs.1,500 to Rs.2,000 a month for many low-wage urban workers, but are also reputed for being tasty and hygienically prepared. They attract a cross-class clientele of over 3 lakh customers a day, including college students, office workers, domestic, construction and sanitary workers, migrants, homeless people and travellers. In contrast to the apartheid-like tiers of quality built by targeted welfare programmes, the canteens construct a space for social convergence, encounter and diversity.

The Unavagams have emerged as a type of “commons” in the city. Urban commons can be conceived as a class of resources — spaces, services, infrastructures — that are widely accessible and collectively used, regardless of who legally owns or controls them. Like beaches, parks, pavements, or public transport, they bring diverse swathes of urban society into relationships around shared, collective, often contested stakes in common resources, generating a politics of access. They give meaning to the urban as the grounds for a space of extended sociality, for ongoing democratic contestation. Urban commons open and enlarge spaces for subsistence in an increasingly enclaved city.

The canteens also, as Chennai discovered during the 2015 floods and the 2016 cyclone, provide a city-wide infrastructure of community kitchens that can be mobilised during disasters. If all of this costs the city’s exchequer an annual estimated Rs.20 crore in subsidies, as one oft-cited critique highlights, we need to ask what would constitute a more legitimate use of tax money than this creation of an infrastructure of affordable and decent food, large-scale employment-generation for women, and spaces for social convergence.

Bypassing obligations

In stark contrast, the Amma Kudineer scheme — the subsidised sale of Amma-branded “mineral” water in 1-litre PET bottles — supports the crudest form of commodification of our most threatened life-sustaining resource. Launched in 2013, the scheme produces water at a 3 lakh litres/day plant in Gummidipoondi, Tiruvallur district. As in most other commercial bottling plants, the water is manufactured through reverse osmosis (RO), a process that has been heavily criticised for its unsustainable withdrawal of groundwater and for its wasteful use: for every gallon of water produced, 3 litres of rejected water are dumped. Far from providing mineral water as advertised, the RO process actually demineralises water, removing particles of calcium, magnesium and iron that may usually be present in natural water. Demineralised water has been found to be associated with bone and joint diseases, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems.

Further, this scheme subverts the state’s legal obligation — defined in the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Act of 1978 — to provide drinking water of potable quality to all urban residents. It also bypasses, and thereby undermines, the existing infrastructure within the city’s water utility, Metro Water, for treating, quality-testing, and monitoring the city’s drinking water supplies and for providing free, accessible, potable water. The failure of this vast and costly infrastructure has led to a public distrust of public water. This distrust, in turn, has spawned a commercial packaged water industry worth over Rs.1,000 crore nationally, supplying one crore litres daily in Chennai alone. Instead of addressing these failures or regulating this runaway business, the scheme sets out to sell drinking water at an ostensibly discounted price of Rs.10 a litre to “those who cannot afford to buy purified drinking water from private players”. As production costs of RO water are estimated at about Rs.3-4 per litre, the scheme appears to be profiteering in the name of providing for the poor.

A modified version of the scheme announced in February 2016 provides a daily allowance of 20 litres of water from RO plants to households of economically weaker sections, this time invoking what has come to be known in urban discourse as an “aspirational” need: “The rich and the affluent in Chennai are buying water purified through the reverse osmosis process. It is the desire of the poor and the deprived sections to use that water too.” RO plants are expensive and maintenance-intensive. If Metro Water’s long-honed systems cannot be relied upon to deliver safe, potable water, what are the chances that a system dependent on regular cleaning of membranes to prevent scaling and malfunction will be sustained?

If the durable legacy of the Unavagam schemes is a network of community kitchens and mass urban eateries, that of the Kudineer schemes is of hundreds of thousands of non-recyclable plastic bottles filling the city’s dumpyards and clogging its waterways.

Karen Coelho is an anthropologist and works on urban transformations in Chennai.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 8:49:25 AM |

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