Tamil Nadu’s Amma Canteens keep former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s wish to feed the poor going in the present coronavirus times. Indira Canteens, named after slain Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, survived the political upheavals even during the BJP rule and help the poor fight hunger in Karnataka’s Bangalore. In Telangana’s Hyderabad, canteens bearing the name of Annapurna, referring to the goddess of food and nourishment, are living up to their sobriquet.
But Anna Canteens, named after Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder and movie mogul NT Rama Rao have slipped into the pages of history in Andhra Pradesh, leaving the poor and homeless high and dry in these difficult times.
Former AP Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu opened around 300 Anna Canteens in memory of his mentor NTR on the lines of Amma Canteens a year before the 2019 general elections, to serve the needy three meals a day, each for just Rs 5. But the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government which came to power in the state elections put the scheme on hold.
The state-run canteens in the three southern states of Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have turned out to be a lifeline for the poor in the current lockdown period. The BJP government in Karnataka and the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu also announced meals for free through the canteens to the poor, though this was scrapped by the Karnataka government owing to contractors inflating bills. Similarly, the TRS government also opened canteens in Hyderabad and several urban centres in Telangana to supply two meals every day, each for Rs 5.
Soon after the YSRCP government was formed, Municipal and Urban Development Minister Botsa Satyanarayana said it was decided to shut the Anna Canteens temporarily. He added that the canteens will be reopened after renewal of contract with the contracting agency, Akshaya Foundation, which ran the canteens. The contract expired in July 2019. One year on, there appear no signs of revival.
The opposition TDP accuses Chief Minister Jagan of killing a pro-poor scheme like Anna Canteens with his vindictive politics, citing how he has dumped flagship programmes conceived during the TDP’s regime. Running at 300 centres, Anna Canteens received an allocation of Rs 200 crore from the then TDP government. In addition, the government mobilised funds from philanthropists. Around 2.5 lakh poor people received three meals a day through the canteens. In a short span, Anna Canteens began to gain popularity as much as the Rs 2 rice scheme introduced by the erstwhile NTR government for below poverty line (BPL) families.
Victim of lopsided priorities
Neither was the agreement with the existing agency renewed nor a fresh agreement with a new agency signed to revive the scheme since the new government came to power. In urban centres the canteens turned into either ward secretariats or state-run wine shops as a sign of the scheme being buried in the changed political context.
The Jagan government has decided to supply essential food items to the doorsteps of beneficiary families listed under Public Distribution System (PDS). Besides, the government has also extended a monthly financial assistance of Rs 1,000 for each coronavirus-hit BPL family to help the poor make ends meet. But these measures will not come to the rescue of the homeless during the lockdown period.
The assistance offered by the government is of little help to homeless migrant workers and street vendors, students in PG (paying guest) accommodations, and the destitute who live on pavements, in railway stations, bus stands and night shelters, during the lockdown period.
Workers from some political parties, NGOs and philanthropists swung into action, supplying cooked food to people living in slums in Vijayawada. “Our resources are meagre and the number of people in need of food during this lockdown period is sizeable,” commented Ch Babu Rao, CPI (M) leader from Vijayawada, who led his party teams in delivering food to slum-dwellers in the city.
The 21-day lockdown was slapped all of a sudden without any prior notice due to which thousands of migrant workers remained stranded in their workplaces across the state. A large number of people come from Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand to work in construction projects, aqua fields, footwear industry and in hotels in the Amaravati region. Having lost employment, they are struggling hard to fight hunger.
Rough estimates suggest a whopping 10,000 students from different parts of the state came to Vijayawada to take up coaching for bank tests and other tests for recruitment in government jobs and got stranded in the process. All of them are finding it hard to keep the wolf from the door.
Gali Nagaraja is a freelance journalist who writes on the two Telugu states.
Views expressed are the author’s own.