ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Amma Unavagams of Tamil Nadu

Panacea for Urban Food Insecurity?

The Tamil Nadu state government has started 283 subsidised restaurants - amma unavagams - in nine urban centres. This initiative has been a hit with a wide spectrum of urban consumers. However, the majority of the patrons seem to be the working urban poor. These initiatives have been accused of being "populist" but this model of providing affordable cooked food in urban areas promises to not only ensure food security but also keep food prices in check.

The launch of amma unavagams (restaurants) is yet another – populist – low-budget social welfare move by the Government of Tamil Nadu to reduce urban poverty in the jurisdiction of municipal corporations. Though Tamil Nadu is under the moderately developed state category in terms of economic development, the extent of population below the poverty line (BPL) continues to haunt policymakers. Due to rural distress and the availability of jobs in the urban areas people continue to migrate to urban areas in search of employment in the unorganised sector. In fact, as per the 2011 Census Tamil Nadu’s urban population grew faster than its rural population. A majority of the migrant and unskilled workers in the metropolitan municipalities lack basic amenities including housing, sanitation, safe drinking water and food at affordable prices. This warrants a concerted effort to tackle urban poverty and the amma unavagams provide subsidised food as succour to urban poor.

Amma unavagams were initiated primarily to feed the urban poor with subsidised food. In municipal corporation areas a cross section of unskilled workers, students, floating population, itinerants, domestic workers, pavement and street vendors constitute a sizeable population, who earn meagre incomes and find it difficult to spend a considerable portion on food. Expectedly, amma unavagams, run by nine municipal corporations, in Tamil Nadu demonstrate that it is a successful anti-poverty initiative. Tamil Nadu is a pioneer in food security through an effective public distribution system, mid-day meals for schoolchildren, and nutritious food for pregnant women. This state introduced noon-meal scheme to schoolgoing children way back in the 1950s, which helped increase school enrolment, improved the health status of children and enhanced the retention rate. It has been acclaimed as an innovative model to strengthen school education. During the same period, Sarojini Varadappan, daughter of the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Bakthavatsalam, set up annapoorna cafeterias (non-profit outlets) to feed the urban poor at cheap rates in Chennai (then Madras) during the 1950s. This initiative was widely appreciated.

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