The social contract of most societies tries to balance the extent of a safety net with volatility in growth. Or so professional Economists who study this tell us. That debate amongst developed societies such as America and Scandinavia is at a level that’s difficult to imagine for many in India where basic calorific intake isn’t always met. It is obviously far easier, however, to look at things that surprisingly work well in our own society in terms of what they aim to accomplish. The nascent ‘Amma Unavagam‘ that provides breakfast and lunch at very cheap rates appears to be one such candidate. A Soup Kitchen experiment in a country with such rampant poverty and malnutrition is possibly the best way to make calories reach people — provided it’s run well and can scale.
The first thing that one notices as one enters the premises of Amma Unavagam is that they are surprisingly well maintained — clean, orderly and efficient. The staff are all women from Self Help Groups. The food in terms of tastiness is reasonable; the point of comparison may be that the Idli in Amma Unavagam tastes better than what most college hostels in the State serve their students. The water in the premises is reverse osmosis treated. The kitchen is visible to onlookers and is again very clean and mostly automated. The three locations of Amma Unavagam visited in three different cities — Chennai, Salem and Coimbatore — were are all uniform in terms of quality and even the clientele. There was the odd middle class person, a couple of lower middle class people, some daily wage earners and mostly the very poor.
Sendhil Mullainathan’s research on the cognitive ability of people under stress owing to scarce resources is interesting to consider in this regard. On a related note, a field experiment that’s in progress among North Madras’ malnourished cycle-rickshaw pullers measures the impact of extra calorific intake on their productivity and cognitive ability. This experiment simply seeks to provide more calories (not better nutrition) to a group of emaciated rickshaw pullers whose intake prior to intervention was 1,200 calories a day. Of that, on average, 15% of the calories was from sugar in alcohol. The preliminary results, one is told indicated a significant increase in cognitive ability and productivity by a mere additional 300 calories a day. Or, in other words, as long as the truly destitute don’t have to worry about going hungry, their mental resources for other productive activities will be available at a much better ratio. Seems like a far more reasonable thing to do compared to providing subsidy for LPG, does it not? An important aspect about the delivery of this form — a Soup Kitchen subsidy — as opposed to schemes that require documentation is that the truly destitute are also the set of people who find it most taxing to obtain and preserve documentation.
Other recent populist projects of the State Government of Tamil Nadu include subsidised mineral water, subsidised vegetables and medical insurance apart from an already well functioning PDS. Some of them make better sense than others. But the uniform aspect has been surprisingly good execution. An interesting point of observation, based on the research cited above, will be to measure how the presence of PDS and the availability of food grain through it correlate to per capita income and education levels across states in India. And more importantly how they improve over time. The next post will attempt to do that.