x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

India's 'Amma canteens' help battle rising food prices

Municipal-run kitchens provide subsidised meals to the poor that are an appetising alternative to the abysmal quality and rampant corruption that plagues India's vast subsidised food distribution system. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

Schoolgirls collect free midday meals at government-run primary school in New Delhi. India may soon pass a new law to give millions more people cheap food. Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters
Schoolgirls collect free midday meals at government-run primary school in New Delhi. India may soon pass a new law to give millions more people cheap food. Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters

NEW DELHI // When a new cafeteria opened in Tamil Nadu recently, the food was all devoured in an hour and the authorities struggled to hold back the crowds.

Piles of dosas and rice disappeared quickly not because the food was particularly delicious, but because it was cheap.

The kitchen in the town of Salem that opened last week was the latest outlet from a programme dreamt up by the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa.

Operated by municipal corporations, these kitchens, known as "Amma canteens", provide subsidised meals to the poor that are an appetising alternative to the abysmal quality and rampant corruption that plagues India's vast subsidised food distribution system.

On Thursday, India's government said it was considering calling a special session of parliament to pass a US$24 billion (Dh88bn) scheme that would massively broaden the provision of wheat and rice to India's poor.

The success of the small kitchens in Tamil Nadu has given fresh impetus to politicians to pass the National Food Security Bill, which aims to provide quality subsidised foodgrains to nearly 70 per cent of India's 1.2 billion population.

The kitchens are a way for Ms Jayalalithaa to combat the problem of rising food prices, said N Sathiya Moorthy, the director of the Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank.

While Mr Moorthy said the canteens were an improvement over the grain distribution system, he said he believed Ms Jayalalithaa had political motives as well.

"If they are able to maintain the quality and expand their services, offering generous jobs in the process, it will eventually translate into votes for the party," he said, referring to Ms Jayalalithaa's AIADMK party.

It is politics that many have said is driving the fast-tracking of the National Food Security Bill. The scheme is a pet project of the Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi, who led the party to victory in the past two elections on the back of similar populist programmes.

But her party is mired in corruption scandals that have paralysed parliament. Speeding up a scheme that would reduce food costs for 800 million people could help the Congress regain some popularity in a country home to 25 per cent of the world's hungry poor, according to the UN's World Food Programme, despite being one of the world's biggest producers of food.

Increasing food prices have also led to more people requiring subsidised food.

India's current food distribution system, which has been in place for 50 years, is the largest in the world. The country spends 750 billion rupees annually to provide cheap rice and grain to 250 million Indians every year.

But corruption results in 40 per cent of rice and wheat earmarked for the poor being siphoned off, while an inefficient distribution channel also leads to waste.

The poor who go to the shops that distribute the subsidised grains complain that the quality is poor and the rice often contains small stones and mice droppings.

As a result, states such as Tamil Nadu have found alternatives.

Since the 1950s, the price of rice and its distribution have been a huge electoral issue in Tamil Nadu, Mr Moorthy said.

In 1967, the Congress was voted out of power in the state after a spike in the rice prices in January - the time of the harvest festival of Pongal, which is celebrated by boiling rice and milk.

Power in the state has changed hands several times since, because of the rising price of rice, and every successive state government has promised a better, more efficient distribution system for cheap rice.

The state government allocated 49 billion rupees (Dh3.13bn) for food subsidies in its 2013-2014 budget.

The line leading to the order window at the Amma canteen in Salem last week was so long that restaurant workers had to double up as crowd stewards and herd people into separate queues for women and children, the elderly, the disabled and, lastly, men.

At least 300 people queued up to pay just three rupees for a plate of curd rice and just one rupee for steamed rice cakes with a side of vegetable stew.

The first Amma canteen opened in the state capital Chennai in February and 24 have opened since. Amma means mother in the Tamil language and is also Ms Jayalalithaa's nickname.

Last month she announced in the state assembly that she would set up 1,000 of the canteens.

Critics have said that the focus on providing cheap food distracts from other problems. Tamil Nadu has one of the most severe electricity shortages in the country - in parts of the state, there is no electricity supply for up to 18 hours a day.

"It is a good way to deflect people from looking closely at an administration that is otherwise in shambles," said M Subramaniam, a former mayor of Chennai. "Only food issues have been addressed so far, but other issues such as lack of roads, rubbish clearing, street lights and other basic amenities are suffering because of the focus on winning popular appeal through food."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters