New Delhi: 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. 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.

In most states, the food that is served in these canteens is keeping in mind the local diet and preferences. So in Odisha, the canteens will serve dalma, a traditional lentil dish with vegetables. In Rajasthan, the Annapurna canteens list traditional fare like khichda, rice and dal on the menu. In Andhra Pradesh, idli and curd rice can be found on the menu while in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Canteen provides roti, rice, dal and vegetables. Basanta Kumar Kar, chief executive of Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security (India), calls this “adding colour to the plate. It is not just about giving food to eat but meeting the body’s requirements also. Vegetables, lentils, rice, food grains integral to our diet are important if we want to combat India’s food issues."

According to Kar, around 15% of India’s population is food-insecure. He is quoting from the report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World released in 2015 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “In India 194.6 million people are mal-nourished. Another big issue in India is anemia. More than 50% of women in the age group of 15-39 are anemic and more than 20% men. When we talk about these schemes, we need to know this background," says Kar. He is responding to concerns about schemes like these being populist in nature and a burden on the exchequer. In 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report on local bodies had stated that the expenditure on Amma canteens crossed Rs100 crore in Chennai though the revenue continues to be far less than that amount. “These programmes are important because of the lifestyle, migration, job compulsions of people," says Kar. It is a point Sinha is in agreement with, taking it a step further. “In Chennai, children of domestic workers come to eat at these canteens. The mother doesn’t have time to cook and instead of eating less healthy food, these canteens offer a great alternative."

But just the like the proof of the pudding lies in the eating, the success of subsidized food canteens lies in their running. And to run a scheme properly, it requires political commitment. “A self-centred government, focused on its own needs which has failed to strengthen systems in a place cannot be expected to deliver. Any sort of a scheme relies on investment in infrastructure, a culture of accountability. If these are not met then it just becomes an unimaginative, copycat decision by a government," says Bengaluru-based economist S.L. Rao.

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