After an afternoon of kindly requesting officials at the Corporation of Chennai for data on basic municipal services, we stumbled upon the Herbal canteen at Ripon building. The food was absolutely delicious. While we had planned to sample only one plate of vadai, we found ourselves devouring two plates each. The canteen also seemed to be managed well, looked clean and hygienic and was very affordable. If the standard of the Herbal canteen is anything to go by, Amma canteens (comparable in terms of menu and price) are probably just as fabulous.
Enough has been said about the phenomenon that is the Amma Canteen. For instance, sample this, this, and this. The Corporation of Chennai is opening new canteens at breakneck speed. This programme, launched in February 2013 with 15 canteens, now has about 200 canteens in the city with one in every ward.  With a double-digit food inflation rate making essential food items unaffordable for many, these Amma canteens are a welcome alternative, especially for the urban poor. The food is healthy and nutritious: on the menu are items like herbal tea, sambar with assorted vegetables and ragi puttu. But what really are the hidden costs of Amma canteens?
Our field work at Transparent Chennai has unintentionally proven revelatory about what these canteens mean to the existing municipal infrastructure of the city. For instance, when we were mapping and surveying night shelters for the city’s homeless, a regular user of the Nandanam shelter on Chamiers Road told us that the Corporation was seriously considering converting that shelter to a canteen before they identified an alternate location. At another Corporation shelter for the homeless on Third Line Beach road we learnt that one dormitory had been converted into a canteen. In another instance, a typically devoted AIADMK councillor casually mentioned the pressure he was facing to open a canteen in his ward. We also noticed that a conservancy office in Alwarpet has recently been converted into a canteen. There was also an article about a public toilet in Thirumangalam that was renovated and converted into an Amma Canteen. The report states that the Corporation was in a hurry to open a canteen as soon as possible and this led to an allegedly unused public toilet being converted.
Spurred by the tremendous response the canteens have received from the public, there are reports that the government is considering opening them all over the state. This level of efficiency in the implementation of a government initiative is unprecedented and raises questions about why we do not see a similar drive and efficiency in other development programmes.
Another matter of concern is one raised by the renovation of existing public facilities to adapt them for a use other than their original purpose. This entails a significant cost, not just the actual costs of renovation but also the loss of important public buildings, such as libraries and even the Tamil Nadu Secretariat. Public infrastructure must be planned according to the need and demand for them by people who need them most. The possible difficulties involved in identifying and acquiring land in every ward for a canteen and the pressure on existing Corporation infrastructure may be very real. Yet allowing transient political priorities to supersede planning processes involve real costs too, costs that must be made a part of the cost-benefit calculation of any infrastructure and service initiatives.
Written by Priti Narayan and Vinaya Padmanabhan with inputs from Harsha Anantharaman, researchers, Transparent Chennai