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School Children Are Hungry In India
|by Dr. Prasenjit Maiti|
A few state governments in India have of late waged a war of attrition with the Union Government over the contentious issue of providing cooked mid-day meals to underprivileged primary school children. This is primarily a central government-funded public welfare scheme where the center provides uncooked cereals (and transportation of food grains) free of cost. However, 'cash-strapped' state governments plead inability to provide cooked meals to children in the below poverty level category, and seek to provide uncooked cereals instead (that too on an irregular basis), although it costs about INR 1 per child per day to provide cooked meals for the stipulated 200 days a year.
The Supreme Court of India, the country's apex federal court, in an interim judgment, has recently ordered these state governments to immediately comply with the Union Government's regulations or else the center's aid to the states will be diverted to sponsor the mid-day meals project in primary schools. NGOs like the Right to Food and Work Network, Campaign against Child Labor, West Bengal Education Network and the Calcutta NGO Forum of Street and Working Children organized demonstrations by underprivileged children on 14 November 2002 ' Children's Day ' in Calcutta and across West Bengal to protest against the state government's inability to provide mid-day meals to primary school students.
Children mobilized a symbolic fund-raising drive with banners stating: 'Our state government claims it doesn't have the necessary money to provide us with food in our schools, so we're begging for money from the common people. We shall send this money to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee so that he can provide cooked meals to hungry children.' However, the West Bengal government, citing financial stringency, hasn't yet sanctioned INR 190 crore to provide cooked meals to about 95 lakh students in the state. The West Bengal government, in response to a Supreme Court ruling that states should not compromise with children's food, had earlier petitioned that it was unable to implement the central government-funded mid-day meals project due to severe funds crunch. But the apex court rejected the petition and cautioned on 3 September 2002 that central aid to the states would be diverted for the meals project if cooked meals were not duly provided in schools.
The People's Union for Civil Liberties (Rajasthan) filed a petition In May 2001 in connection with the 'right to food' in the Supreme Court, demanding that the country's food stock should be used without delay to prevent hunger. The Supreme Court, in its 'interim order' passed on 28 November 2001, converted the benefits of eight nutrition-related federal schemes into legal entitlements and directed the state governments to provide cooked mid-day meals for all children in government and government-assisted schools:
This judgment revised the earlier arrangement under which primary school students were to be provided with 100 gm of wheat or rice for a minimum of 200 days in a year free of cost. However, states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand have violated the order of the Supreme Court by not implementing the project. Manipur also plans not to introduce the scheme. It has even submitted an interim application to the Supreme Court to this effect. Both Manipur and Mizoram have argued that mid day meals are not part of the eating habit of the people, and that children do not like to eat in the middle of the day, according to the Voice of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network.
The Tribune reported on 29 September 2002 that 'The states did not have the money and the Center did not assist. The matter was taken up by the states with the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Human Resource Development leading to delay in filing affidavits by states, including Punjab.' The mid-day meal scheme happens to be one of the most resisted central schemes in federal India. This happens to be a central government scheme, but the states have to bear the costs of implementing it. This is one of the prime reasons for stiff resistance by the states.
The Hindu reported on 13 September 2002 that 'Since the start of the new academic session a few months ago, the mid-day meal scheme is not being adequately implemented to nearly nine lakh children studying in 1,800 primary schools of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Whatever is being given to the students is unhygienic and sub-standard, the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has alleged, a charge denied by the ruling Congress. Further, services of private contractors are being taken for distributing fresh fruits to the students.'
The Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, an NGO, has reported that the Maharashtra government has issued an order to the effect that contributions for the scheme will come "voluntarily" from the villages themselves. Local bodies have even been cautioned that they will not receive the benefits of other central government schemes if they do not contribute to the mid-day meal scheme.
The Times of India, a national daily, reported on 8 July 2002 that 'The Maharashtra government has decided to wash its hands off the mid-day meal scheme for primary schools, claiming that it has no funds to provide cooked meals to students. The onus of running the scheme has been passed on to the gram panchayats (village-level institutions of decentralized governance).
Jean Dreze, Visiting Professor at the Delhi School of Economics and associate of Noble Laureate Amartya Sen, argues that '60 million tonnes of grain are lying idle in public warehouses. These food mountains have become a resilient national embarrassment. Grain withdrawn from these warehouses is effectively costless, since the procurement expenses have already been borne. In fact, using idle food stocks for school meals would save money, by reducing storage costs' (The Hindu, 21 May 2002).
Collective demands for mid-day meals were raised in more than a hundred districts of the country by way of public hearings, protest demonstrations, hunger rallies and the like on 9 April 2002. The unwilling states, however, are yet to comply. Demonstrations were held in each and every district of Bihar. Thousands of children clamored for mid-day meals in Patna, the capital city, with empty plates.
'One might have expected State Governments to welcome the school-meal program as an opportunity to win votes at relatively low cost. Indeed, the scheme is likely to be quite popular, and it is not very expensive for the State Governments, given that the Central Government is supplying the grain for free. In most States, however, there is no sign of such enthusiasm. There is something deeply defective about a democracy where people's basic needs count for so little in electoral politics,' adds Dreze.
Mid-day meals as a public welfare concept in India dates back to 1925 when such a project was launched for underprivileged children in the Madras Corporation area. The Keshav Academy of Calcutta introduced compulsory mid-day refreshments for school children in 1928 (on a subsidized payments basis). A school lunch program was started in parts of Kerala in 1941, followed by Bombay implementing a free mid-day meal scheme in 1942. Another project was launched in Bangalore city in 1946. The Uttar Pradesh government introduced a program in 1953 (on a voluntary basis) to provide cooked mid-day meals to school children. Several states introduced such schemes during the 1950s, aided by international agencies like the UNICEF, FAO and WHO.
The Catholic Relief Service, Church World Service and Meals for Million also lent their assistance to these programs. An Expanded Nutrition Program launched jointly by the FAO, WHO, UNICEF and the Government of India was launched during 1958-59. This subsequently developed into the Applied Nutrition Program.
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