ON 21 FEBRUARY 2013, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and Mayor Saidai Duraisamy followed the legendary MGR’s footsteps as it were. The duo deserve praise for the launch of low priced canteens- Amma Unavagams. The scheme involves the opening of over 100 centers spread across the Chennai metro to offer food at prices affordable by the masses. Idli (100 gm) at a rupee, curd rice (350 gm) at Rs 3 and sambar rice (350gm) at Rs 5 are sold at extremely attractive prices. For just Rs 10, a full meal is made available!
Over the last couple of years, food prices in hotels and restaurants in the city have been soaring. Saravana Bhavan, once a modest-priced medium budget vegetarian restaurant, is today pricing its product very stiff, a simple breakfast of a couple of idlis, a dosa and a coffee costs around Rs 75/-. A meal costs above Rs 65. I have noticed a number of medium-priced hotel chains and dhabas in other southern cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad offering these at about half the price. May be a reason for such high pricing is the high cost of rentals and interiors.
To sustain low prices...
The low price canteen idea is presently built on locating these in property owned by the Corporation. The Corporation should ensure utilising such property available with it, as also owned by other government agencies like the Tamil Nadu Housing Board. With the infrastructure available free or at modest price it will be possible to offer food at low prices. We have examples of this at the CMDA canteen at Egmore offering coffee at Rs 6 and meals at Rs 30 and at the lawyers’ canteens in the high court premises and the numerous canteens in private business houses. It is encouraging to notice the Corporation engaging NGOs and women self-help groups in this task.
The Corporation would also do well to look at massive centralised kitchens. The Hare Krishna Movement started the Akshaya Patra initiative in Bengaluru. In a centralised kitchen machines make around 10,000 rotis per hour! Economies of scale keep costs low. Akshaya Patra distributes the food prepared to different schools efficiently and effectively. Akshaya Patra targets to expand the number of beneficiary children fed every day round the year to five million and make the nation free from hunger over the next eight years. The programme is indeed massive and the efforts mind-boggling.
The Shiv Sena took such an initiative at Mumbai several years ago and provided a meal at just a rupee. Unfortunately that experiment was not sustainable. In the present scheme, providing rice and dal at low prices, of space at low or no cost and through effective management, the Corporation can sustain this initiative and ensure voluntary organisations get a decent wages for their labour.
The success and sustainability also depends upon the ability to maintain quality and delivery. Of-course there is the issue of ensuring hygiene. Mayor Saidai Duraisamy has been known for successfully coaching candidates for the tough IAS examinations. One can expect him to give the same attention and care for the successful management of this invaluable scheme.
Nearly three decades ago, M G Ramachandran as Chief Minister introduced the mid-day meals scheme for school children, the old and destitute women… It was a big, bold initiative that evolved as an extremely invaluable social welfare measure. Today, it is implemented all over India; Budget for 2013-14 proposes to fund Rs 13,215 crore on this scheme.
The low price canteen scheme has the promise of evolving as another extremely beneficial scheme. to provide the most fundamental of human needs at affordable prices.