Chennai: After the lockdown was enforced on 25 March, the Amma Canteens had come as a blessing for many in Chennai as they started getting three free meals a day. From security personnel and migrant workers to sanitation workers and those rendered jobless, all would come to collect food from the 407 Amma Unavagams (canteens) scattered across Chennai.
Bur Sunday night was the last time they got the free meals. The canteens started charging for the food again from Monday.
While the charges are nominal — Re 1 for a piece of idli and Rs 3 for a plate of curd rice, for example — the decision saw an immediate effect as fewer people turned up at the canteens for breakfast and lunch Monday, according to those operating the centres.
“I am facing difficulties in paying for food. I haven’t got my salary for the month. I don’t know how I will continue to pay for food. It will be very difficult for many people. They should not have started charging already,” said Ineeth, who works as a watchman near the Amma canteen in Sholinganallur.
Speaking to ThePrint, many other workers also said the move will make the situation difficult for them as they are still trying to get back on their feet.
‘3 meals in a day won’t cost more than Rs 15’
Madhusudan Reddy, Joint Commissioner (Health) at Greater Chennai Corporation, said the Amma Canteens always served food at subsidised rates, and giving meals free of cost was an exception.
“We started providing food fee of cost during the lockdown as people had constraints going out and were not able to work and get an income. However, now since a substantial portion of the lockdown has been relaxed, people are going back to work. Therefore constraints in earning are also less,” said Reddy.
“All three meals in a day won’t cost more than Rs 15,” he said.
The annual budget of the city canteens is around Rs 100 crore, said G. Prakash, Commissioner of Greater Chennai Corporation.
The latest move is restricted only to Chennai and won’t be implemented in other parts of Tamil Nadu yet. “NGOs and philanthropic organisations also contribute in running Amma Canteens. In places where they will support, free food will continue to be provided,” said Reddy.
The canteens had discontinued free food for a brief period last month also when the government announced that hotels and other food services could operate after 4 May in non-containment areas. But as the numbers dropped, the government withdrew the order.
In the four years since its launch in 2016 by former chief minister Jayalalithaa, the Amma Canteens have always fed the poor in Tamil Nadu, with the simple and fresh food sold at highly subsidised rates making life easier for many. The initiative has since inspired states like Karnataka and Odisha for similar subsidised food programmes.
Numbers drop as canteens charge
According to reports, nearly 4.5 lakh people visit Amma Canteens in the Tamil Nadu capital every day.
ThePrint visited the Amma Canteen in Sholinganallur, in Chennai’s IT corridor, to understand how the unavagams work. The canteens serve three meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — and the menu is same everywhere.
At Sholinganallur, the canteen has a separate kitchen area and a dining area. However, to ensure social distancing amid the Covid-19 outbreak, people are not allowed to sit and eat in the dining area, but are given takeaways.
For breakfast that is served from 7-10 am, the canteen serves idli (Re 1 each), sambhar and pongal (Rs 5). Between 12 and 3 pm, sambar rice and lemon rice (Rs 5/plate each) and curd rice (Rs 3/plate) are served as lunch. Chapatis and dal (Rs 3) and tomato rice (Rs 5) are served as dinner between 6 and 9 pm.
The staff works in two shifts and ration items are refuelled every day.
As the canteens started to charge for the food Monday, M. Sandanam Mari, a worker at the Sholinganallur canteen, said, “Normally, we get around 60 people for each meal. However, for breakfast only 40 people came and lunch had even fewer people as only 30 people came to the canteen.”
She said more people had begun to visit the canteens after the lockdown was enforced. “During the lockdown, we were giving food to everyone — from security personnel, to migrant workers to sanitation workers,” said Mari, who has been working at the canteen for three years.
Akash Bohra, a 29-year-old electrician from Jorhat in Assam, said he started visiting the Sholinganallur canteen regularly after the lockdown. “I come for all meals now. It was very difficult for me during the lockdown, I earned no money. There was no work at all,” Bohra said when ThePrint spoke to him Sunday.
He added that work has resumed now due to the relaxations in the lockdown, but he wasn’t earning more than Rs 500 a day on alternate days, compared to Rs 800 daily earlier.