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Welcome to Amma Unavagam: India’s first socio-economic food policy

Welcome to Amma Unavagam: India’s first socio-economic food policy

 By Raghunath Nageswaran and William Liang

The significance and relevance of the Amma Unavagam (Amma Canteens) – an initiative towards urban food security by providing cheap food to anyone who wants it – has to be seen in the context of growth. For growth to be inclusive, the precariat (those without any security in the towns and cities) have to be supported with the basic minimums. Clearly, providing the hungry with food is the first step.

Rural-Urban migration and food security

From 34.15% in 1991, the state’s urban population rose by 14.3% by 2011.

Among the big states, Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised with 48.45% of its population living in urban areas (Census 2011). In the last 20 years, the rate of urbanisation in Tamil Nadu has been rapid. From 34.15% in 1991, the state’s urban population rose by 14.3% by 2011. In the last 10 years alone, the percentage of the population living in urban areas has risen by nearly 5%.

Tamil Nadu has a very good spatial spread of a large number of small, medium and large towns. This opens up the scope for non-farm livelihood opportunities as the agrarian crisis intensifies. However, one can nevertheless notice people migrating towards destinations that are experiencing a construction and service sector boom. Since Chennai happens to be the ultimate crucible, it has garnered a significant chunk of the intra-state rural-urban migration. Further, there is a steady flow of migrants from other parts of the country into the city. 


Amma’s Canteen: Ensuring food security of the masses | Photo Courtesy: lifeandtrendz

In the midst of this flux, the emergence and performance of Amma Unavagam bring into renewed focus the age-old question of the role of the state in ensuring the food security of the masses. This is especially important in the context of rapid urbanisation, and an equally rapid informalisation of the labour force.

Helping women tackle Time poverty

One of the most striking features is the palpable absence of women in the canteens. This is made even odder by the fact that the canteens are run by women. However, the staff working in the canteens note that the absence of women does not mean that they were excluded from the benefits of the programme. Instead, the food is taken in boxes by the husband and/or children to the women at home. They are, thus, indirect beneficiaries.

What Amma Unavagam does for women is to address the issue of time poverty.

At its most banal level, time poverty is the shortage of time available to devote to purely personal requirements. In India, most people who are time-poor are also income poor and suffer from other, often multiple, deprivations. They have to work long hours for relatively low wages, or for paltry remuneration from self-employment. In addition, they must also engage in unpaid labour to meet the essential consumption needs of themselves and their family members.

Here, the true reason for the absence of women arises – women have themselves asked their spouse/child to have food in the canteen so that they can devote more time for non-household work. In this way, they can work for more hours to get additional wages. Thus, the programme gives women a brief respite from the back-breaking task of unpaid labour at home. 

Canteens as Social Safety Nets

Most people eat at the canteens out of need. Some of them are young and trying to save money for their family, while others are retired.  

Due to the diversity, it is clear that the canteens play an important role in efficiently delivering social security based on ‘palatability’. The canteens were ‘unpalatable’ or ‘undesirable’, for those who are retired while they were working. This may not be because of the food’s taste, but instead, because of the social flavour of the canteens. However, upon retirement, the programme becomes ‘palatable’ in the context of a new financial situation.   

In this way, the Amma Unavagam functions as any number of welfare or social security programmes. The money saved by switching to Amma Canteen food can be thought of as a cash payment for the non-distorted consumption groups, as, the meals are priced below the cost of production.  

But, is palatability the best allocator? In a subsidised meal program, it might be an efficient allocator when compared to formal registration for social security. Firstly, self-selection via palatability cuts administrative costs. Secondly, this method reduces inclusion or exclusion errors. Policymakers may simply set the wrong cut-offs for targeted programs. Further, targeting based on a single dimension, like income, may not reflect variance in costs of living or other individual circumstances. Thus, through the use of ‘palatability’, the programme is more efficient than its alternatives. 

Is access in excess?

It is important to note that Amma Unavagam happens to be one site where many social barriers become irrelevant.

Many votaries of the scheme seem to be of the opinion that the better-off should self-select themselves out of the system so that the programme would exclusively benefit those who need it the most. While this argument bears merit in the case of most universal in-kind transfers, Amma Unavagam is somewhat different. It is important to note that Amma Unavagam happens to be one site where many social barriers become irrelevant. This is because, in a highly stratified society like ours, any attempt at promoting joint eating has positive social effects. As a result, the calls for barring the better-off may not be in the best interest of anyone.


Amma Unavagam: Where many social barriers become irrelevant | Photo Courtesy: Flickr

In spite of its intended universality, problems still persist. Some legitimate criticisms have been voiced by common people. A number of individuals feel the programme undercuts push-cart eateries and vegetable vendors. Many have said that the government is wrecking the economies of the small traders. There is also the issue of the government creating these canteens simply garner votes.

Two issues merit attention here. First is the need to promote agriculture to deal with the long-range problems associated with food insecurity. Second is the state’s ability to generate enough productive jobs in the economy. Of course, the scheme was not built to deal with such long-term problems. 


While the ‘Gujarat Model’ vs the ‘Kerala Model’ debate continues, the progress that Tamil Nadu has made on the socio-economic front has gained very little attention. The social agency of its people (of women in particular) has enabled a reasonably fair distribution of the benefits. Of course, this is just a putative assessment of welfarism in the state, but Tamil Nadu’s ability to combine economic growth and pro-people welfare policies with success merits closer analysis.

William Liang is an undergraduate student of Economics at the Yale University and Raghunath N has a Masters in Economics from Madras Christian College.

The data for this paper was collected by them as part of an internship with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). 

The views expressed are of the authors and not the foundation.

Featured Image Credits: madrasshakenandstirred

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