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DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Free Meals for Children Less Than Palatable

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Apr 29 2004 (IPS) - Seven-year-old Puja looks forward to the ‘kichdi’, a meal of mixed rice, vegetables and lentils provided free by her government-run school here in the Indian capital, even if it seems unpalatable to many.

”Sometimes my stomach hurts after the meal, but at least I am not hungry,” Puja told IPS. One day in February, Puja became one of 260 students from two schools run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) that had to be rushed to hospital soon after they had ingested the cooked meals.

The ‘kichdi’ is being provided as part of the mid-day meal scheme that schools across India are required to give out under a November 2001 fiat by the Supreme Court.

Not to be left behind, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee – speaking at ceremonies on Aug. 15, 2003 marking the anniversary of India’s independence from colonial rule – made a solemn pledge that all primary schoolchildren would be provided free cooked meals.

But as with other laws and publicly stated intentions to benefit the poor made by political leaders in India, the implementation of these pledges has fallen far short.

On Apr. 20, the apex court observed that ”it is a matter of anguish that despite the lapse of nearly three-and-a-half years, the order has not been fully implemented by all the States and Union Territories”.

After perusing affidavits filed by various provincial governments, the court found that some schools had not even made a beginning, others had made a partial beginning and only a handful had fully implemented the order to provide cooked mid-day meals to their students.

Delhi state, which houses the national capital, was one of the states that readily complied with the order. But to critics, the frequency with which schoolchildren fall ill or have to be hospitalised after the mid-day meals is unmistakeable proof that the scheme is being implemented half-heartedly at best.

”Ramshackle mid-day meal programmes can do more harm than good,” opined Jean Dreze, the Delhi University economics professor who has been the driving force behind getting grain stuffed into overflowing granaries to India’s starving millions.

There have in fact been numerous instances of children refusing to eat their school-provided meals.

The February incident followed another in November 2003, when 140 students of an MCD-run school had to be taken to hospital in ambulances after they developed stomach cramps and vomiting, the classic symptoms of food poisoning.

”Besides implementation, the Supreme Court is now taking a closer look at quality aspects,” said Colin Gonsalves, counsel for the non-government group People’s Union of Civil Liberties.

In its Apr. 20 order, the court asked the state governments to ensure better infrastructure such as the building of kitchens or sheds to ensure quality safeguards, and to improve the contents of the meals their schools are serving up.

Gonsalves said the court was satisfied that wherever implemented, nutritious mid-day meals had the effect not only of protecting children from hunger but also of boosting school attendance, particularly of girl students.

In fact, the court, acting on representations that India has stocks of food grains of more than 50 million tonnes following several years of bumper harvests, have directed the schools to maintain the mid-day meal schemes right through holidays and vacations.

The court, Gonsalves said, has ordered the chief administrator of each state to file by Sep. 15 this year compliance reports, and given the central government until July to declare by when it would be able to make good the prime minister’s promise made on Aug. 15, 2003.

But all that would only take care of those children who are actually attending schools. A new government report admits that the 30-year-old Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS), a programme meant to benefit children under the age of six, has only been able to reach only 16 percent of undernourished youngsters.

This is in spite of the involvement in the ICDS of such international agencies as the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Bank and several non-government organisations.

Once again, the Supreme Court has had to step in to see how well the ICDS is working. According to affidavits filed by the government, some 30 million children under the age of six are benefiting from supplementary nutrition schemes under the ICDS, but this falls far short of the targeted 150 million children in that age group.

The central government reported to the court that states like southern Kerala and Tamil Nadu have shown that nutritional programmes are feasible, affordable and effective. But in large northern Indian states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the ICDS has not quite taken off for various reasons.

Corruption and diversion of stocks are among the reasons behind the poor implementation of food entitlement schemes.

For example, in February 2003 the Calcutta High Court ordered the filing of a criminal suit against the inspector of schools in Midnapore district for selling rice meant for the mid-day meal scheme in the open market – in collusion with administrators and a private contractor.

There have also been turf tussles between the centre and state governments, and the mid-day meal scheme has come up against stiff resistance in opposition-party ruled states.

These state governments fear that the political party that leads India’s central government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would take credit for feeding schoolchildren while the costs are borne by local governments.

Although India is ruled by the right-wing and pro-Hindu BJP, many state governments are run by the equally powerful Congress party, which claims to be secular and socialist, or by regional parties with similar outlooks.

In some states like southern Karnataka, caste issues have sprung up. Upper-caste parents have refused to send their children to schools that have employed cooks who are ‘dalits’ who are at the lower end of the Hindu hereditary social hierarchy of caste. The Supreme Court’s response to such developments has been typically stiff and constitutionally correct.

In its April order, it directed state governments to ensure that preference be given to ‘dalits’ and other socially disadvantaged groups when cooks and helpers are appointed for the schools’ mid-day meal schemes.

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