A cool, inviting breeze blows through the streets of Chennai on a pleasant September morning. After months of facing a near-drought through the summer, the skies promise to open at any moment, even if only a little. As the traffic begins to pick up pace in the busier parts of the city, Parvathy* finds the weather far from welcoming. With a large ladle in one hand, she briskly scoops the freshly-made white batter into the moistened stainless steel plate she is holding in her other. “My son must be getting ready for school. I hope he has removed all the clothes I put up for drying this morning,” she says, uncertainty creasing her forehead.
She left for work at 5 am while her son and husband were still asleep, having cooked, cleaned and washed clothes. Parvathy, like hundreds of women across Tamil Nadu, works at Amma Unavagam, the popular, subsidised canteen introduced by the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in February 2013. Aimed at providing easy and cheap access to cooked meals for disadvantaged sections of society, the canteens were considered a pet project of the late leader of the AIADMK government. The flagship welfare initiative was the first of the ‘Amma’ brand which went onto include water, salt and fair-priced vegetable shops among others in later years. Over six years after its launch however, the women who run the canteens are concerned about the current state of affairs in the Amma Unavagam. And exactly three years since the death of Jayalalithaa, the workers who were once encouraged to set up budget canteens to serve the poor are now disillusioned about their future.
According to the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department's 2019- 2020 policy note presented this year, 407 Amma Unavagams are in operation across the state. Seven of them are located in hospitals serving subsidised food to the needy, sick and their families. Chennai city alone has 200 budget canteens, per the Commissionerate of Municipal Administration.
Workers preparing lunch at Amma Canteen. File image. Courtesy: Facebook: @ammaunavagam
“I have been making the same Rs 7,000 per month since 2014 when I joined here. My son will soon be going to college. I have to pay basic fees even if it is a government college, you know? The prices of essential groceries and vegetables are so high these days, we are barely able to eat two meals a day. My husband works as a construction labourer so there is no work guarantee. We really can’t afford to borrow any more money at this rate,” she says. The imposing commercial idli steamer before her, running on a precariously placed LPG cylinder nearby, is guzzling water as steam threatens to burst forth. In about 30 minutes, the thick batter is transformed into two dozen soft, firm idlis costing Re 1 each.
Self-help groups to subsidised kitchens
When the canteen scheme was first announced, the municipal corporations of various cities were tasked with its running. These corporations, in turn, recruited women from self-help groups (SHGs) who were part of the informal sector, but the state promised this would change. These women would no longer be part of the informal sector, but would instead receive the job security and benefits of working under the aegis of the government. The gradually-expanding scheme took in a variety of women who were previously doing small-scale cooperative work with SHGs like tailoring or making flower garlands. These women hoped that under the newly-introduced government scheme, they would no longer have to juggle multiple jobs or be forced to borrow from loan sharks. Yet, today, the workers not only complain of stagnant wages but the declining patronage of these once-popular canteens has also meant that employee rights for these women are practically non-existent.
150 kilometres away from the state capital, in neighbouring Vellore district, 50-year-old Salma* pulls back the frayed end of her bright-green saree to reveal chipped off toenails and multiple cuts. “Every day, we pour our blood and sweat into this place. I can’t count the number of times the idli plate has burnt my arms or washing the large pots with the metal scrub has cut my feet and hands,” she says. A look around the canteen reveals that not even a first-aid box has been provided to the workers toiling away in the heat near a stove every day.
An Amma Unavagam worker washing a large vessel after lunch time. Courtesy: Manasa Rao/ The News Minute
Salma continues, “My husband passed away in 2015, six months after we set-up this Amma Unavagam. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I will get help like I did when we were part of the SHG. I ran from pillar to post at the corporation office, begging for treatment money. But all they did was send an official with a garland to our house, after my husband died,” she says through tears.
When asked if she was given time off work, Salma shakes her head. “I had to finish all the formalities after the death so I couldn’t come to work. There is no leave for anyone, even on festival days. So I had to forgo my daily wages,” she reveals.
These shocking, unspoken rules— like working 365 days a year— that have become normalised over half a decade appear to form the basis of the workers’ discontent. It’s a sharp contrast from their time working together as a small self-help group.
40-year-old Lakshmi* who heads the women workers in the Amma Unavagam in Vellore and takes care of the books says that corporation officials, who used to be in regular touch with the canteen, have stopped contacting them to find out about grievances. “Initially, there would be weekly meetings and inspections. Nowadays, they don’t even pick up our calls when we say that the steamer is not working. When we were working as a cooperative, one of us would would make flower garlands, another would stitch blouses and another would sell the flowers. We were accountable to each other. Since we were all working from our homes, in the same neighbourhood, we could manage our homes and do our work. But here, it’s different. We have been doing our work with difficulty because there is nobody we can complain to.” The fear of potential retributive action from increasingly unfriendly authorities for airing their grievances is also the reason that all of the over 30 workers TNM spoke to chose to remain anonymous.
An Amma Unavagam worker stirring curd rice at lunch time. Courtesy: Manasa Rao/ The News Minute
Unsafe working conditions
At one Amma Unavagam in Chennai, among the first to be opened in the state, the signs of a waning scheme are apparent: the entrance is strewn with garbage while the signboard is missing entirely. The only way to tell that it is an Amma Unavagam is the familiar green and white paint and the unmistakable fragrance of sambhar rice at lunch time. Bhavani* and her colleagues have just finished preparing sambhar rice and curd rice— they are awaiting customers shortly. The outlet used to prepare three meals a day— including the chapati-kurma between 6 pm and 9 pm— with the women working in shifts. This gradually reduced to two meals a day. In fact, many canteens have now discontinued the karuvepillai (curry leaf) rice that used to form part of the lunch menu, limiting it to curd rice and sambar rice.
It has been a tiring six hours of non-stop work. Pointing to the spot where the signboard used to be, Bhavani says, “When this was set-up, we all thought Amma (Jayalalithaa) herself was giving us a government job. So we would come early in the morning, make tiffin and we would struggle to even give out tokens to those waiting in line for lunch.”
A file image of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa serving food at a newly-inaugurated Amma Unavagam. Courtesy: Facebook: @ammaunavagam
How have things changed since? Drawing attention to the TASMAC outlet, the state-run liquor store, nearby, Bhavani says, “In the early days, there were always people around so we never felt unsafe. But when the crowds started dwindling, people from TASMAC have begun entering the canteen at all hours. There is no safety for us here. We cannot handle cooking, cleaning and the abuse of drunk men all at the same time. We can’t afford to delay cooking by even 10 minutes. The premises had a CCTV camera in the first year. After it stopped working, officials never replaced it. Even if we shout, nobody will be able to hear us from inside,” she says, adding, “If an official comes for inspection, we don’t know what they are writing in their notes. They don’t show it to us.”
Similarly, back in Vellore, Lakshmi says that they are at the mercy of the local businesses and shopkeepers for a need as basic as using the bathroom. “There is a waterlogging problem in the bathroom. We are tired of complaining. How many times can we explain ladies’ issues to the men? There is nobody to clean it when we are working. We cannot expect all the people who come here to maintain it in a clean way,” she laments.
During the summer months, when many parts of the state were facing an acute water shortage, the Amma Unavagams had to rely entirely on their own staff to fetch pots of water from the tanker lorries for cooking, cleaning, drinking and bathroom use. “Whenever we ask the officials for something, they ask us to do it ourselves. We had to fight for water with the local residents in the area every day. Tomorrow if there is an issue here and we need their help, they will not come forward. Whatever complaints we have, they ask us to ‘adjust’ it with our own salary. That is the hardest part. So much of our money is going in just the repairs which the government can easily do for us, ” says Usha* from one Chennai canteen.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam at Amma Unavagam. File image/ PTI
Demands and answers
Spooning the piping hot idlis out onto a large tray, Parvathy says that the women in the kitchen are tired of the ‘fund crunch’ excuse. They demand to be paid higher wages.
“We need insurance. If something happens to me here tomorrow, there is nobody to answer to my family. We need a basic health scheme. Most of the women here are widows with young children who need the support of a system like SHG. So the government has to give us basic medical help like distribute thailam (pain balms) or medicines. We come here early in the morning, when it is still dark, especially in the monsoon. It would be good if the officials came and discussed these safety issues with us,” she lists.
Meanwhile, officials maintain a guarded silence regarding Amma Unavagam and its activities for any policy decision is taken at the highest levels. “It was a pet project of Amma herself so we cannot touch it,” one corporation official puts it. However reports suggest that the government may consider bringing in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding to the scheme by bringing it under a trust. The canteen made an income of Rs 27.05 crore in 2018- 2019, a drop from Rs 30.46 crore the previous year. However, fears of corporate involvement only adds to the woes of the workers who wonder why the government that recruited them can't now address their basic demands.
A file image of a worker serving lemon rice. Courtesy: Facebook: @ammaunavagam
And despite frequent reports that the Department is considering the closure of these canteens that have witnessed a decline in patronage and rise in woes, no decision has been made on them, given the politically ramifications.
“There are ways to revive the canteens, each corporation will come up with ideas that are suited for their localities. At least at this stage, they won’t be abandoned altogether,” says the corporation official, referring to the upcoming local body elections and the 2021 Assembly polls.
The corporation official says, “The discussions are still underway but we acknowledge that the women are struggling due to a number of factors including a decline in patronage and high prices of vegetables and groceries. The response from our side has not been giving them confidence. But these are not issues that can be solved in a day. The Corporation must show a willingness to act. The canteens are still popular, they are not beyond salvaging yet.”
Attempts to reach the Corporation Commissioner to talk about the issue went in vain. This story will be updated if and when there is a response.