Last Thursday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa launched a chain of pharmacies that will, according to the official press release, sell medicine at a “reasonable price”. Starting with 10 outlets, the aim is to open 100 more across the state.
A couple of weeks ago, the government announced it would sell three varieties of salt at up to Rs 7 below the market price. A state government entering retail may come as a bit of a surprise, but the brand name does not: the low-cost medicine will be sold from Amma Pharmacy while the salt will be marketed as “Amma salt”.
The salt and pharmacy chain are just the latest in a series of retail welfare schemes the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government headed by Jayalalithaa has initiated under the “Amma” banner since it returned to power in 2011, after defeating the M Karunanidhi-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the electoral musical chairs the state must now be accustomed to.
“Amma” means mother in Tamil and is a moniker favoured by the 66-year-old chief minister. Last year, the state’s transport department began selling Amma packaged drinking water at Rs 10 for a 1-litre bottle (the Railways’ Rail Neer sells for Rs 15).
Her government has also opened greengroceries under the “Amma” brand to sell vegetables at low rates by eliminating middlemen. And this might just be the beginning. The Chennai Corporation, in its budget for this year, announced it will set up “Amma cinemas”, where tickets would be significantly cheaper than at multiplexes, Amma women’s hostels, Amma weekly markets and Amma computer training centres.
“Amma tea” is also being considered, according to reports. AIADMK sources even say there is competition among various departments to come up with “Amma” retail ideas. (The chief minister’s office did not respond to requests for an interview, and party spokesperson and MP V Maitreyan declined to be interviewed for this report.)
The masterstroke, though, would have to be the chain of canteens called Amma Unavagams, selling breakfast, lunch and dinner at unimaginably low prices. Drop in at one, and you will understand why.
Ranjith Kumar, an XML operator who moved to the city from Thanjavur, is one of the 10 or so customers at a canteen in Chennai digging into a plate of idlis and sambar on a Friday morning. For this hearty breakfast, or “tiffin” as he calls it, he will pay only Rs 6, a drastic drop from the Rs 25-30 he used to spend at eateries earlier.
A few hours later, at the unavagam in Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital, which is also the biggest at 5,000 square feet, there are long queues at lunch time. T Elumalai, an insurance agent who is at the hospital to get his wife’s skin ailment treated, says he and his wife had to stand in line for around 20 minutes before they could eat. But they are not complaining, with the bill for both coming to a princely Rs 18. “And the food was good,” says Elumalai.