Maa Canteen to be expanded in 50 cities

Abhishek Law Kolkata March 30 | Updated on March 30, 2021

Meanwhile, BJP’s Annapurna Canteens to provide subsidised food three times a day for ₹5

Babloo Singh, a van-rickshaw puller, has found solace in the kiosks that are abuzz with activity between 1 pm and 3 pm every day. He does not have to worry on spending ₹30-50, like earlier, for rice, daal and sabzi at the roadside shanties, especially on days he does not get business. He can manage ₹5 for a “full-course meal” at the Maa Canteens. He is happy that he gets an “egg” among other things.

Faced with the task of battling a saffron surge in the state, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, introduced a slew of welfare schemes in the run-up to the Assembly polls. One such welfare scheme was a rip-off of the Tamil Nadu government’s flagship food security scheme, Amma Canteens. Karnataka has a similar scheme called Indira Canteens.

Launched in February this year, Banerjee named her food security scheme as ‘Maa Canteens’, as an “act of respect for all mothers”. The canteens provide a meal of rice, dal, sabzi and egg, at a subsidized cost of ₹5 to everyone. They operate daily between 1 pm and 3 pm.

‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ (Mother, Soil and People) was incidentally her poll slogan in 2016 and also in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The scheme, which is expected to be continued comes over and above her existing welfare schemes like Duare Sarkar (doorstep delivery of services), free ration and subsidised health care (through Swastha Saathi cards).

BJP’s oucnter

The BJP had initially been pretty vocal about the “intentions” and continuity of the scheme. Dilip Ghosh, President of BJP’s Bengal unit had claimed that the “scheme reflects how poor the purchasing power of people were in the state”.

However, with the canteens gaining some traction, BJP has promised its own version of the same in its poll manifesto.

The saffron party has promised to set “Annapurna Canteens” across the state which will provide subsidised cooked food, three times a day at ₹5 per meal; another copy of the already existing format of Tamil Nadu.

Incidentally, West Bengal did have a concept of Ekuse Annapurna, where food was provided at ₹21. Some say, these have been discontinued to push the Maa Canteens.

Maa Canteen rollouts

In Kolkata, the city civic body, called Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) is in-charge of handling these canteens.

According to a senior civic official, the plan was to roll out at least one such canteen in each of the 144 wards of the KMC, before the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) came in place. At present, there are 100-odd such canteens that mostly operate daily.

“Expansion plans have been stopped for the time being as MCC is in place. We do not operate the canteens on some specific days like a holiday or so on,” an official said adding that anywhere around 100-300 people take benefits of the food-security schemes. The number varies depending on the area of the canteens.

Self-help groups have been roped in for the cooking and according to civic officials there could be more than one such group operating a canteen in the locality. The upper limit of price per meal has been fixed at ₹20. The State government bears a cost of ₹15 per meal; while buyers pay ₹5.

A Budgetary provision of ₹100 crore has been made for this recently.

While a clear profiling of buyers are not possible, officials say these range from daily wage earners, rickshaw pullers, slum dwellers, elder ladies and sometime roadside workers. Migrant labourers are a big draw too.

Canteens are not permanent structures at the moment, but there are plans to expand their scope. There are some teething problems with all canteens not operating simultaneously everyday; but these are “teething problems” that can be worked out over the next few months, once “polling is over”, said a Trinamool leader requesting anonymity.

The Trinamool Congress, however claimed in its poll manifesto that there are 27 such Maa canteens in the state and has promised to take the number up to 2,500 in 50 cities and promises to provide 75 crore subsidised meals.

West Bengal incidentally has a population of around 10 crore.

While the BJP had been critical of the scheme and questioned its continuity post the elections, the saffron party too has promised the roll out of a similar food security and welfare scheme in its poll manifesto from Bengal.

Welfare and Electoral Successes

Political observers say, such welfare schemes may not always translate into votes.

Former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu launched ‘NTR canteen’ in 2016 but despite this, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) lost Assembly elections. Later, the current YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s government closed down NTR canteens.

In Karnataka, the Siddaramaiah government launched the ‘Indira canteen’ in 2017 to offer cheaper meals for the poor. But Karnataka did not vote Congress back to power. After the JDS-Congress coalition government failed, BJP came to power. The canteens still continue though.

However, in Telangana, the Annapurna Scheme for subsidised meals was launched in March 2014 and the ruling TRS has incidentally fared well since then, some point out.

Published on March 30, 2021

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