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Voters lap up Re 1 idli from Jaya kitchen

- Meals at corporation canteens a big hit

Chennai, Feb. 24: If the way into voters’ hearts is through their stomachs, Jayalalithaa appears to have come up with the right recipe.

A chain of low-cost canteens, opened recently in Chennai as a “brainchild” of the Tamil Nadu chief minister, has whetted appetites at a time of rising food prices.

Idlis at Re 1 each, sambar-rice at Rs 5 and curd-rice at Rs 3 — the Chennai Municipal Corporation-run canteens that offer breakfast and lunch have seen hundreds flock since they opened on February 19.

“We started with 15, added 24 today and by the end of March, plan to run 200 canteens. These will be named Amma Unavagam (Amma’s eatery) since it was the brainchild of our leader,” Chennai mayor S. Duraisamy said.

The menu is basic. Idlis with sambar for breakfast, with an idli priced at Re 1. For lunch, 350gm of sambar-rice and 350gm of curd-rice is on the platter.

Although there are no side dishes, the fact that the food is supplied fresh and hot from attached kitchens, and is quite tasty, has kept the customers happy, satisfied and coming back for more.

But many of the customers smacking their lips may not know that the pot was stirred 30 years ago.

Jayalalithaa’s political mentor MGR had etched his name in the hearts of the poor by rolling out a free midday meal scheme for schoolchildren that addressed the twin issues of poverty and nutrition.

The scheme, which runs alongside a similar central meal plan, became a precursor to similar state-sponsored interventions. Many see Jayalalithaa as having tweaked that scheme by attaching an affordable price tag, though the canteen benefits are now limited to Chennai.

“Actually, the quantity is substantial at this price and the sambar-rice tastes perfect. I used to spend at least Rs 80 a day for my meals but it is much less now. I need to buy only my dinner elsewhere. But If I can pack a sambar-rice for dinner, I will spend lesser. It is a huge saving,” said B. Arumugam, a security guard who earns around Rs 7,000 a month.

The canteens are targeted at lower-income groups — security guards, daily-wagers, drivers, domestic helps and others — who constitute a large and loyal vote bank.

But a recent visit to one canteen in Adyar showed a handful of bachelors, all BPO professionals, digging in before logging in.

“We were apprehensive about the quality but are surprised at the cleanliness and the excellent service,” said Pramod Kumar, polishing off his second sambar-rice plate.

Like many others, he wanted more. “Wish they would give a vegetable poriyal (dry subzi) and pickle.”

But a canteen official said such additions would push up costs and make the meals costlier, defeating the primary purpose of supplying inexpensive, but wholesome, food.

The civic body now manages to keep a lid on expenses. The services of women self-help groups are used to cook the meals in modern kitchens attached to the dining area. The provisions are procured from the civil supplies department at rates less than the market prices.

“While the estimated running cost is Rs 35 crore a year, the income will be around Rs 29 crore (the rest will be met by subsidies). Since the canteens are being opened only in corporation-owned buildings, we need to invest only in equipment, which amounts to Rs 5 lakh for each centre. The main component, rice, is heavily subsidised at Re 1 per kg,” said Vikram Kapur, commissioner of the Chennai corporation.

The plan isn’t without a flip side — many vendors who run roadside eateries, catering mainly to the sections the canteens target, could suffer.

But overall, the scheme is being seen as a vote-spinner, especially if it is extended to other cities. “Freebies like mixies, grinders and fans have not taken off due to the massive power cuts. But food is always a sensitive issue and any attempt to make it affordable invariably pleases voters,” said a senior IAS officer.