Amma canteen variants catching up in other States: Just bad populism?

Karnataka just announced in its recent budget that it will launch Namma Canteens styled like TN’s Amma canteens. This led to criticism that it is not just populism but also hinders well run private darshinis in the State.

In a piece, Nikita Doval of Mint shows the  idea has caught up with other States too. Of course menus differ based on local consumption:

The late J. Jayalalithaa’s government in Tamil Nadu had launched Amma Unavagam (Mother’s canteen) with much fanfare in 2013.

Meant to provide wholesome food at heavily subsidized rates, the canteens which are run by the government but staffed by women from self-help groups have been a runaway success. Meals are priced at Re1, Rs3 and Rs5 and the menu includes idli, pongal, pre-mixed rice and chapatis which are served with complimentary dal. Such has been the success of these canteens that states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh have also started their own versions of subsidized food canteens. Now Karnataka too has announced the launch of Namma Canteens in the state.

The nomenclature varies from state to state; so in Rajasthan it is the Annapurna Rasoi Yojana where breakfast is served for Rs5 and lunch for Rs8. In Madhya Pradesh, it is christened the Deendayal Canteen; in Andhra Pradesh, the NTR Anna Canteens and in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi canteens were launched in January where the state aims to provide a wholesome nutritious meal for Rs10.

Just plain populism?

Whatever the names, the end objective is the same, to meet the nutrition requirements of the poor at a minimal rate in clean, hygienic surroundings.

It would be easy to dismiss the scheme as populist, especially given that Jayalalithaa’s party’s success in the 2016 elections was attributed to all the schemes which had been started in the years before, ranging from giving free laptops, mixer-grinders and of course the canteens, but a bigger purpose is also being met.

According to the National Family and Health Survey conducted in 2015, Indians still continue to struggle with BMI (body mass index) and anaemia. In states like Andhra Pradesh, 14.8% of men and 17.6% of women were found to be underweight. In Madhya Pradesh the numbers were 28.4% and 28.3%.

“In India, nutrition is a big issue, low BMI is a concern even for adults. In such a scenario, a balanced wholesome meal is part of the state’s responsibility but it has to be done well to succeed,” says Dipa Sinha, a right to food campaigner and assistant professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She cites the example of Brazil’s popular restaurant and community kitchens that serves nutritious food at affordable costs.

It is, however, not a simple matter of launching a subsidized food scheme. There are several other factors that need to be taken into account like the kind of food being served, the condition under which it is served and the overall hygiene of the place. One of the other advantages of the Amma Canteen is the employment it provides to a large number of women. “At a time when we are looking with worry at the declining number of women in the workforce in India, schemes like this are a great way to bring more women into the work-force,” says Sinha.

Similar arguments are made for mid day meal schemes as well. Populism can be tolerable as long as implementation is fine. Populism plus poor implementation is a double whammy which is usually the case with most such schemes..

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