Amma canteens

Print edition : April 19, 2013

The lunch-time queue at the canteen on Poonamalee High Road. Photo: R. Ravindran

At the budget restaurant on Santhome High Road in Chennai, people enjoying their meal. Photo: R. Ragu

At the counter, members of the self-help group that runs the canteen. Photo: R. Ragu

The young autorickshaw driver in Chennai ran his right palm in circles over his tummy and declared happily: “Two portions of sambar rice, and one of curd rice will do and I am full. The food is tasty, and it is not adulterated. And what I had works out to only Rs.13.” At the Amma Unavagam, or Amma canteen, on Santhome High Road, appreciation flowed for the State government’s new meal scheme for the poor. A retired car driver who stood in the queue behind the autorickshaw driver was quick to second him: “Food in the restaurants is expensive. I cannot afford it. I have retired. The food here is good too.” It is afternoon and in the queue are construction workers, security staff from nearby establishments, petrol bunk attendants, college students, migrant workers and so on. The canteen hall is clean and so are the surroundings.

The Amma canteens open at 7 a.m., and inside an hour sell a couple of thousand idlis. They are open from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 12 noon to 3 p.m. In the afternoon, the menu is sambar rice and curd rice. While an idli (100 gram) with sambar costs Re.1, a plate of sambar rice (350 grammes) costs Rs.5 and a plate of curd rice (350 gram) Rs.3. There is no limit to the amount one can eat, but parcels are a strict no. The canteens are open on all days of the year.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa inaugurated the canteen on Santhome High Road on February 19, and 14 more were opened the same day in other wards. The aim is to serve good food at affordable prices to the poor. Since then 59 more have been opened, and 127 more are expected to be opened by April 1. That will take the number to 200 budget restaurants, one in each ward. A demand made is that pickle or chutney can be sold along with sambar rice or curd rice.

Women’s self-help groups from the local areas run the canteens. They cook the food and sell them; the government provides the rice, dhal and vegetables. Deepam Women’s Self-Help Group of Rajeev Gandhi Nagar manages the budget restaurant on Santhome High Road with the help of Asha Nivas, a non-governmental organisation.

S. Santhisri, group leader, said: “We were doing social work. So we were given the job here. I am the supervisor.” Sixteen women are employed in this canteen. “All of us work unitedly,” said Violet Mary, one of them. Another employee, D. Ponni, said they sell at least 3,000 idlis now, up from the 1,000 they sold initially. Eight hundred portions of sambar rice and 400 of curd rice were snapped up, she added.

The sanitary inspector, the junior engineer and the tax collector from the local Corporation division monitor the working of these establishments.

T.S. Subramanian

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