Piping hot Pongal is the latest item for breakfast at Amma Canteens in Tamil Nadu. A plate of this popular cuisine costs just Rs 5. Three months ago Chief Minister Jayalalithaa launched these canteens in Chennai to help the poor get quality nutritious food at subsidised prices. Fluffy idlis cost just Re 1 each; sambar rice Rs 5 and curd rice Rs 3. Following good public response, these restaurants were set up at all 200 wards in the city. Now the state government has taken these canteens to nine other cities: Coimbatore, Madurai, Trichy, Tirunelvelli, Tuticorin, Salem, Erode, Vellore and Tirupur.
A customer told NDTV, "Pongal is a very good addition. It is easily digested. Idli too is easily digested. Anybody can have pongal, even patients like to have idli or pongal. It is a good move."
In Chennai's Santhome area, Amalraj and his wife Daisy say they've stopped preparing breakfast at home over the last three months. He is a Security Guard with a private agency and their house is just a few hundred metres away from the canteen. Amalraj says "for Rs 20 we both finish our breakfast, we just walk here every morning. It's cheaper than home food."
There's more to choose for lunch. Lemon rice and curry leaf rice have made a debut at an extremely affordable price of Rs 5 a plate. The introductory sambar and curd rice would continue too. The menu draws people from all classes. Labourers to corporate executives simply walk in. Mr Raman, a first timer, says "the quality is very good for the price. Outside even tea sells at Rs 7 now."
Ashwin, an executive who stops at the canteen often, adds "without this poor people will not eat and may skip meals. They can't go to hotels too; they would just remain hungry."
Amma Canteens are run by women from self-help groups. Each is paid Rs 300 a day. Officials claim their focus is on hygiene and quality. A sanitary inspector from the Chennai Corporation explains "customers are served purified drinking water. Come September machine made chapatis would be served."
The city administration has banned take-away to check re-sale of the food for gain. But with the public finding the food so good, customers do manage to take them out.
With more variety, Jayalalithaa's budget canteens are turning into favourite joints for many. Power crisis and price rise continue to be a major issues in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa would be hoping that subsidised food through these canteens would keep her in good stead to face the Lok Sabha polls next year.