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Packaged food will not meet nutrition needs of kids

Packaged food will not meet nutrition needs of kids
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The implementation of mid-day meal scheme in Andhra Pradesh and in many other States is indeed in a sad state. However, the suggestion of the...

The implementation of mid-day meal scheme in Andhra Pradesh and in many other States is indeed in a sad state. However, the suggestion of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on HRD to "explore the feasibility of providing packaged nutritious food in conformity with norms and standards of the scheme" is contrary to the very spirit of the scheme and therefore must be opposed. All such short cuts to freshly cooked meals will prove disastrous to school children.

Among the nine food schemes that are now entitlements, rights, the mid day meals (MDM) and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) or Anganwadis, address the nutrition requirements of school-going children and children under six years. ICDS addresses the requirements of children from six months to six years. This is a flagship program of the Government of India and is meant to raise the nutrition levels of children below six years. It is an integrated scheme that provides young children with services such as supplementary nutrition, health care and pre-school education. The programme also extends to adolescent girls, pregnant women, nursing mothers. The ICDS became a project in 1975.

The MDM is a program that addresses hunger and nutrition of school-going children. Why are 46% of children in the country suffering from malnutrition? This is a question that has been raised by the Supreme Court of India. Hunger and undernutrition ruin children's health and undermine their learning capacities.

The fundamental Right to Education under Article 21 of the Constitution can be implemented in letter and spirit only when children are protected from hunger and malnutrition. Tamil Nadu was the first Indian State to provide universal midday meals in primary schools. Pioneer schemes were introduced as early as 1923 in Madras city. Under the Chief Ministership of Kamaraj Nadar in 1960s and later MG Ramachandran in 1982, midday meals were extended to all primary schools.

The Supreme Court, in the case of PUCL v. Union of India, [case number CWP 196/2001 in the Supreme Court], the highest court of the land has passed a number of important orders to advance the Right to Food. With regard to the Mid Day Meals, the court has said that every government and government-aided primary school and all schools run by a state government, under Union Territory Administration, or with government money by a local body or an NGO in every part of the country must provide nutritious, clean hot cooked meals to all primary school children.

This was later extended to middle school and high school children. The central government allocates funds to meet the expenses towards payment of cooks, helpers, kitchen sheds, better infrastructure and improved facilities, including drinking water. In appointment of cooks and helpers, preference must be given to Dalits, SCs and STs. This is an important aspect of the MDM that attempts to deal with caste and social inequalities. In rural areas, the involvement of women of Self Help Groups as cooks creates a sense of local involvement in the implementation of the program.

While the orders of the Supreme Court are not always adhered to, there is no doubt that the MDM scheme has improved school attendance of children. It must be underscored that the children who go to government and aided schools are from the marginalized sections, castes of society. Many of these children go to school on an empty stomach and MDM is their first meal. The reasons for the failure of MDM to improve the nutrition levels of the children are not difficult to understand.

The appalling state of infrastructure- absence of proper, fully equipped kitchens, dining halls, clean drinking water, poorly paid cooks and helpers. Most schools in AP do not have these facilities. Only 3,077 kitchen-cum- stores have been put in place out of the sanctioned 75,283. The money allotted per meal per child is insufficient to meet the rising cost of vegetables, oils, firewood, and gas. Administrative delays in sanctioning funds, non participation of civil society / community organisations and lack of interest of panchayat bodies in the implementation of the scheme are issues to be dealt with. However, these are not insurmountable.

In urban areas such as in the city of Hyderabad, the Nandi Foundation, Akshaya Patra, ISCKON supply meals to schools through their centralized, machanised kitchens. In rural areas, SHG women prepare meals on the premises of the school. It is mostly rice with often watery dal with some vegetables. Eggs are given once or twice a week. In tribal areas, things are even worse. While there are many shortcomings in the implementation of the scheme, there is no reason why these cannot be dealt with. There are examples of schools where the involvement of committed teachers has enabled the MDM to function well.

In a country where the construction industry is flourishing, is it not possible to build proper, fully equipped kitchens for schools? Can we not treat the women cooks as workers and extend them all the social benefits? Can we not increase the amount per meal per child so that it can provide decent meal? Why is there such reluctance to invest in the health and education of the most marginalized children of the country?

Centralised cooking and supply of meals to schools has not been satisfactory, as often the food goes stale by the time it reaches the schools. The proposal to supply packaged food will not meet the nutrition requirements of the children. It will encourage the biscuit lobby, encourage contractors and middlemen. People's representatives, parliamentarians, members of legislatures must invest at least some of their time and energy in the proper implementation of MDM and ICDS in their constituencies, instead of lobbying for packaged food.

(The writer is former professor of political science, Osmania University)

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