Amma Canteen: Jayalalithaa’s initiative vs the hype

I’ve read praises for Amma Canteen, called ‘Amma Unavagam’ in Tamil, a populist initiative by Jayalalithaa, supplying subsidised hygienic and healthy food to the public masses. With these canteens providing food like idli at Rs. 1, Sambar rice, lemon rice and curd rice at Rs. 5, they have been incredibly popular within Tamil Nadu and have invited studies from across the world and are rumored to be replicated in Delhi, although under a different name – the ‘Aam Aadmi’ Canteens, for Dilli’s Aam Aadmi.

Entrance to the Amma Canteen near Cathedral Road.

When I visited Chennai for an official trip in January 2016, that was my chance to visited the famed Amma Canteen. While the office was located in Sholinganallur, I booked a hotel in the city, ready to soak in experiences that make Chennai unique.

Why Amma?

For the uninitiated, Amma is the designated term of endearment (Tamil, meaning Mother) for the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK, although if you’ve been to Chennai recently, there is no way you could miss her, one could say she is almost like Big Brother, the way her face stares at you everywhere you turn.

There's no way you could miss her. She's like Big Brother, her face stares at you everywhere you turn. Click To Tweet

The only bit of solace is that Amma has a pretty and loving face, perhaps a result of her years in the film industry.

Amma's face on the walls of the canteen.Big Brotherly (Motherly?) Amma #1

Big Brotherly (Motherly?) Amma #2Big Brotherly (Motherly?) Amma #3

The Experience

Well, I came out very impressed with the Amma Canteen system. Chumma (Tamil, meaning: simply) amazing! 

I searched the Amma Canteen website to find the nearest canteen, but due to my unfamiliarity with Chennai, I resorted to Google Maps. Reliably, I could easily find a canteen 1 km from my hotel and walked to it, at around noon. As expected, Amma greeted me with her pretty face.

Women from SHGs work at the Amma Canteens.It was a bit uncomfortable for me to venture in alone as it is mostly a low cost food solution for mostly construction workers, rickshaw pullers,and other daily wage earners, and I felt my resolve wavering, but I walked in nevertheless. There was a proper queue and I caused a bit of amusement for those around. At my turn, I bought a token for Sambar rice and lemon rice – for a total of Rs. 10. The token was exchanged with the women at the food counter for a loaded, clean plate. 

To my dismay and a bit of horror,  I realised I was expected to eat with my hands in the Tamil custom, and I couldn’t arrange for ‘one’ spoon despite repeated expressions of helplessness. Great.

The Food

Delicious, hot food. I never thought about it before but eating hot sambar rice with hands is dangerous.

The Sambar rice was delectable, take my word for it. I could feel it was healthy and very hygienic, I felt no qualms in eating the food. Lemon rice was good too. I believe around 20 people would’ve eaten around the time I was there (30 minutes, early noon). I also saw some kids come in, and here’s a video of them dancing around. 😐

There were clean tables to stand and eat at, and there were others around me eating as well, and the entire place made me feel comfortable and I really appreciated the experience! Amma Canteen truly serves its objectives well. 

More about the concept

Amma Canteens (or Unavagams) are run by Chennai Corporation and managed by women self help groups, with each woman being paid Rs 300 per day. There are 65 canteens around Chennai right now (as seen on the Amma Unavagam website), and the target is to expand this to 1,000 outlets. Business Standard states “The canteens provides food for over two lakh people on a daily basis and employment to nearly 4,000-5,000 women who run them.”

That means it touches the lives of around 6-8% of Chennai’s population. The model is subsidised by the government and costs around Rs. 18-20 crore annually to run, with expenses exceeding revenue by Rs. 5 lakh per day. A small cost for the benefits offered – healthy and nutritious food, hygienic, accessible meals and highly affordable. Also, there are waste management and environment friendly fuel initiatives being undertaken by Chennai Corporation to improve the social impact. “

Currently, the canteens are advertisement-free and clean of promotional agendas, if we dismiss the photo of Amma smiling down at you. This could change over the next few years, if the government decides to bring in private investment/support for the initiative, and the CSR mandate could link up very well with the Amma canteens. With Schedule 7 outlining ‘eradicating hunger, poverty and malnutrition’ as a CSR activity, the Amma Canteens may find private investors and become a highly emulated model fairly soon.