12/03/2013 02:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Major Indian City's Project To Feed The Poor Might Actually Work

Karthik Lakshmanan

The author of this article is a student at the Asian College of Journalism in India. The article is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and journalism schools around the world.

CHENNAI, India -- At 7:30 a.m., a motley crowd of people wait outside a building in Alwarpet, an upscale area here in the capital of the south Indian state Tamil Nadu. There are daily wage laborers, security guards, taxi drivers, school children and, surprisingly, even IT professionals. They are clearly restless from being in line for a long time, but not a single person leaves, as most of them need to wait for what is perhaps their only meal of the day.

The place is Amma canteen, a chain of subsidized food outlets run by the Tamil Nadu government -- similar to soup kitchens in the U.S. and Europe. In a state with 8.26 million people living below poverty level (earning less than 64 cents a day), according to a July report by the government's Planning Commission, the canteens are seen as a huge blessing, even as some raise questions about the government's underlying motives.

"Approximately 1,500 people come here every day," said Sundari, the manager of the Alwarpet canteen, who only provided her first name. "Most of them are from the poorer sections of society, but there are some middle- and upper-class people as well. Some people even come in cars to eat here!"

amma canteen
The women who run the Amma canteen in Alwarpet.

Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who is fondly called Amma (or "mother") by her supporters and is known for her no-nonsense governing style, launched the Amma canteens in February. There are currently more than 200 locations across the state, serving the region's staple food items -- idlis (dumplings made of fermented rice and lentils), sambar rice and curd rice. More than 2,400 women in self-help groups, who were selected by the Corporation for Development of Women, run the canteens.

The canteens proved their success even before the recent passage of the National Food Security Bill, which aims to provide low-priced grains to 67 percent of the country. The menu and hours of operation have expanded, the middle-class has tried them out, and the largest canteen so far opened last month at the main government hospital in Chennai. The increasing popularity of the canteens has also inspired the government to start distributing Amma mineral water, drinking water at subsidized rates provided at bus stations and other places thronged by the poor.

Yet even as the canteens prosper, they have presented the government with many challenges. Some critics contend that they are just an extension of a government practice in Tamil Nadu to offer various freebies in a bid for votes during election time. In 2006, the offer of free television sets helped the previous chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, get elected. Five years later, Jayalalithaa continued the trend by promising that if she was elected, free laptops would be distributed to students at schools that are state-run or receive state aid. And there are now concerns that the canteens are being used as a gimmick for the 2014 general elections.

The canteens also face a loss of 1.72 cents for every idli sold, and more than 300,000 idlis are sold in Chennai alone every day. An idli at the canteens costs one rupee (2 cents), while the same from a street vendor would cost about 10 cents, and from a typical restaurant about 20 to 30 cents.

"[W]hile losing money on every plate at breakfast and lunch ... may not make smart business sense, Amma getting into the business of selling food certainly makes smart political sense one year before elections," writes one reporter for India Today. "After all, there is nothing called a free lunch."

canteen front
The entrance to the Amma canteen in Alwarpet.

Other critics say that the canteens are restricted to the urban population and don’t help people in rural areas, where poverty levels are higher. And with the ever-increasing rates of inflation, it remains to be seen how long the canteens can provide food at throwaway prices -- and how much of an impact they can make on the country's poverty levels.

"These schemes keep changing with every government that comes to power," said Narasimhan Srinivasa Rao, who has lived in Tamil Nadu for more than 50 years. "The Amma canteens are a wonderful initiative, but we have to wait and watch before celebrating it as the next big thing."

Still, many are already celebrating. After the recent opening of the canteen at the city's government hospital, consumers continue to be impressed.

“I used to spend at least Rs. 30 on lunch, a few days of the week, or eat at the hospital canteen," a hospital worker told the daily newspaper The Hindu. "Now, I get lunch for Rs. 5 and this helps save a lot of money."