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WHEN: Friday 12 April 2024 12pm - 1pm (BST) / 4.30pm - 5.30pm (IST)

WHERE: Online on MS Teams

Seminar speaker:

Aishwarya Nanthakumar GVN is pursuing her doctoral studies on the topic: Meals and the Melting Pot- A study of Chennai’s Amma Canteens foregrounding women’s labour, welfare

provisioning and its social and spatial manifestations. She is a research scholar at the Madras Institute of Development Studies working under the supervision of Prof Karen Coelho.

This paper follows the work lives of women engaged as informal workers in the formal setting of a state-run welfare scheme that is aimed at countering urban food insecurity. The Amma Unavagams are a chain of public canteens located across Chennai serving cooked meals to the urban populace at highly subsidised rates. The scheme grew in popularity and continues to be patronized by a sizable number of people from different social groups looking to satiate themselves with minimal expenditure. While the scheme enabled the creation of job opportunities for low-skilled low-educated urban women, the informal nature of their employment has a bearing on multiple aspects of their work.

The workers labour in precarious conditions, distanced from the state as contract employees, yet carry the burden of welfare delivery as front-line workers of the state. This is another illustration of ‘doing development through gender’ as pointed out by Swaminathan (2015) where she argues that welfare programmes designed by the Indian state have led to feminisation of responsibilities. In the instance of the Amma Canteens too, the state is actively participating in the informalisation of its female labour force, not just as an enabler of capitalism but through its core activity of welfare provisioning. Through participant observation and in-depth interviews conducted in the canteens, this study presents the experiences of informality for women workers in the formal setting of a welfare scheme by exploring their subjectivities and agency.

The paper dwells on their motivation to work despite the perceived unfairness of their terms of employment; the instruments of discipline used by the state apparatus that enables continuous functioning of the canteens with minimal supervision; and women’s labour that mediates welfare delivery cushioning bureaucratic inefficiencies to ensure uninterrupted provisioning of cooked meals three times a day all-round the year.

The Laws of Social Reproduction project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (under grant agreement No. 772946).

For more information about the project, please email

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Prabha Kotiswaran

Professor of Law & Social Justice

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