Hyderabad/Chennai/Bengaluru: Food for votes has become the flavour of the season. Political parties across states are using subsidized food programmes to remind voters that the cheap meals they have at the public exchequer’s cost are part of an investment plan. From Kerala to Madhya Pradesh to Andhra Pradesh, subsidized food tagging a political icon seems be the most favoured way to the minds of voters.
In the latest instance of politicians using the food lure, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu on Wednesday launched 100 Anna canteens, similar to the Amma canteens in Tamil Nadu. These outlets will provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to people at the highly subsidized rate of ₹ 5. Anna in Sanskrit means food.
This is clearly aimed at rebranding Naidu, who already runs a programme called “Chandranna" that he has named after himself, as the people’s chief minister and not only the “Cyberabad chief minister" that he was called in his earlier avatar.
The Andhra Pradesh government is slated to open a total of 203 Anna canteens by the end of the second phase of the scheme.
In neighbouring Telangana, a similar scheme called the Annapurna centres, was started by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) a few years ago. Under that, citizens could have meals for as little as ₹ 5 during lunch time. The centres have been set up only in Hyderabad, and more than 100 are functioning across the city.
In April, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Madhya Pradesh named the food security scheme after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-BJP icon Deendayal Upadhyaya. This is especially significant as the state goes to polls later this year. The BJP-ruled state of Gujarat runs a subsidized food scheme called Maa Annapurna exclusively for labourers working at construction sites.
Tamil Nadu remains the finest exponent of this populist genre. While Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under M. Karunanidhi was the first to introduce populist schemes, J. Jayalalithaa re-branded it better through her Amma schemes, with the most popular one being the Amma Unavagam (canteen), which has turned out to be a model for most of the other states. With idlis for ₹ 1 and sambhar rice for ₹ 5, these canteens have drawn the attention of politicians from other states. The Amma patronage also includes Amma drinking water, Amma mineral water, Amma salt, Amma pharmacies, Amma cement, Amma laptops, Amma baby kits, Amma seeds, Amma grinder, mixie and fan, Amma micro loans scheme.
The welfare schemes in the state were kicked off with the revolutionary mid-day meal scheme introduced by R. Kamaraj in 1962, as an attempt to increase the number of children attending school and to reduce the school drop-out rate. It became a nutritious meal scheme when the M.G. Ramachandran government decided to introduce egg in the meals.
In a corner of Kerala, the ruling communists are trying out an innovative cashier-less restaurant to feed the poor, suggesting they may have improved on the Amma canteen model popularised by Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu. Unlike the Tamil Nadu model, where the state subsidizes canteens, the Janakeeya Bhakshanasala (people’s restaurant) in Kerala offers its fare free of charge to anyone who walks in.
The Janakeeya Bhakshanasala, a two-storey restaurant opened near Pathirapally in Alappuzha district, works on a charitable model—it redistributes voluntary donations made by its rich patrons to fund free food for the poor. Customers who wish to pay for food put whatever they wish to into a box at the entrance.
Former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah announced a flurry of schemes for food security, which include Anna Bhagya (free rice), Ksheera Bhagya (free milk for students) and nutritious meals for expecting mothers. He then introduced food security schemes targeting the urban poor in Bengaluru by launching Indira canteens, which were loosely modelled around the Amma canteens of Tamil Nadu. Big posters of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the canteens left no doubt that this was a political tool, forcing the election commission to order that the face be covered when the election code of conduct came into force before the 12 May assembly polls.
The subsidized food venture, which served breakfast at ₹ 5, and lunch and dinner at ₹ 10, proved to be a huge hit among various sections of the society.
The success of Indira canteen led a Janata Dal (Secular) legislative council member and jeweller, T.A. Saravana, to open the Appaji canteen to honour party leader H.D. Deve Gowda.