#RIPAmma – What Amma meant to people

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

On 13th May, 2011, with the rumble of the crackers celebrating Amma’s victory serving as the background score, The Hero and I sat outside the IIT Madras guest house after dinner, weighed our options and spontaneously decided to move to Chennai.

“A kick-ass female C.M., a winning IPL team and filter coffee. What more do we want to be happy?”, I joked. We moved to Chennai for good in September and Amma has been part of my life since.

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Three years later at the peak of the Modi wave my first ever vote went to Amma . I chose to vote for Amma not because I wasn’t sure of Modi (topic for a different post) but because in a country swept away in an obsession for one man, and an opposition in ruins, I put my faith in Amma to oppose him if needed. Turns out that a lot of others did the same resulting in the AIADMK picking up 37 Lok Sabha seats in one state compared to the INC’s 44 across the country. That was Amma for you. I couldn’t find it in my conscience to vote for her again after the administrative mismanagement of the Chennai floods but there was no viable alternative really, and she was back again.

Why did people love her so much? I have just two stories to tell. One is my former cook’s, the other my former maid’s. Both these women were BPL, uneducated and divorced. As divorcees they received a stipend of a couple of thousand rupees a month. This subsidy, my maid later told me, acted as an incentive for some women to legally divorce their abusive husbands as opposed to just living separately from them.

My cook’s daughter was a reasonably bright student. When she got an admission into a good college she accepted a gift of some of my lightly worn clothes but not of my lightly used laptop – Amma had given her one of her own.

My maid’s son, similarly, refused a new backpack for school when I offered him one. Amma had given him one of his own. With some help from me and subsidies from Amma, he got a decent push for education.

Freebies like griders, mixies, fans, and TV’s allowed my maid and cook to enjoy a reasonably comfortable middle-class lifestyle. They are not cash rich, neither will they likely ever be. But they felt empowered to use the machines they saw in the homes they worked in.

It wasn’t just the women, my fruit seller and I once joked about the fact that even his pen was Amma branded. He sheepishly admitted that he got the bright white dhoti he was wearing as a gift for attending one of the numerous rallies held across the city.

A lot of cab drivers have told me how they eat at Amma canteen. Amma canteens provide not just subsidized food but also dignified employment to women. P told me how their family’s maid quit domestic work to serve food in an Amma canteen instead.

It didn’t end with freebies and food. My cook used to buy vegetables and medicines for her arthritis at Amma stores. My maid used to get a bunch of other freebies using her BPL ration card. All in all, they were happy and they kept voting for Amma. Contrary to what some might believe, the subsidies didn’t make them “lazy”, they helped supplement the family income.

Of course the AIADMK cadre’s obsession with branding came at a cost. People were disgusted when volunteers during last year’s flood were not allowed to distribute supplies without slapping on an Amma sticker first. But that’s besides the point. The point is, the impact of these subsidies was very real for many people – mostly women. It’s easy for me with all my advantages of education and employment to judge the laptops and mixies being distributed as luxuries. But to the women who received them they were necessities.

Here’s some very creative accounting to put the numbers in perspective. The best estimate I can dig up for the freebies is INR 5,600 crore in the 2015 state budget. Even if that were doubled to about INR 12,000 crore to count all subsidies, compare that with the income generated by TASMAC (state controlled liquor stores) – around INR 16,000 crore in 2015-16. So in effect what Amma did was transform the revenue generated from alcoholic husbands into freebies for their (oft-abused) wives and daughters. At least that’s how the two women who worked in my house saw it.

I haven’t made up my mind yet whether subsidies and freebies are good or bad but it’s worth noting that when the Nordic countries implement elaborate state funded programs we ooh and aah over them and share the story of why Sweden is special on Facebook.

Subsidies are not the only reason people loved Amma, of course. She was intelligent, articulate, an iconoclast, and an inspiration. Her courage and determination are legendary. I miss her too.

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