One important attribute that is essential not just for survival but also for the optimum physical and mental growth of children, is nutrition. From the mere availability of food to the luxury of choices available in food, food teaches children the functioning of the society. It thus plays a very important role in a child’s life as it satisfies the child’s most fundamental needs — nutritional security. The government as an institution in providing this security, has played a huge role in India, through one of the largest meal schemes in the world — the Mid-day meal scheme — which feeds around 1.2 crore children every day. The Mid-day meal scheme has been a huge impactor in lifting people from poverty and providing children with nutritional security. It is lifting children from malnutrition, increasing school enrolments, and empowering women. It is also contributing heavily to the psychological development of millions of children in India today. However, this sheer scale of impacts that it promises, is what puts it under tight scrutiny. The scheme has its fault lines which are only deepening without proper monitoring.
As we boost ourselves to be a secular nation with the motto of unity in diversity, the handling of this scheme tests the authenticity of our secular foundations. An article published in The Print in January 2019, reports that “As of today, 12 states across the country serve eggs — that is less than 50 per cent of India’s 29 states” whereas the National Institute of Nutrition states that proteins derived from eggs is comparatively higher, that is the protein bioavailability is 94%, which is far more than vegetable proteins like the Bengal gram (76%) and soya bean (54%). Similarly, another news report in The Hindu on November 2019 states that The Akshaya Patra Foundation has claimed that it provides quality and hygienic food from its centralized kitchens to the students, but it has removed onion and garlic from the list of ingredients. Thus, there clearly is an organized and systematic step to move towards enforced vegetarianism according to the majoritarian religious prescription. This government-funded scheme is therefore, in a way misusing the vulnerability of the poor by imposing a dominant ideology.
A recent verdict on CM Yogi Adityanath’s illegal slaughter house ban case states that
The Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court had heard the case and ruled that food and food habits were connected to the right to life and livelihood guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The bench had also observed that it directly affected the ‘private choice’ of food. It is the private life of an individual that is also affected who may desire to have such food as his private choice of consumption.
This Private choice of food is what is undermined in the publicly imposed mid-day meal scheme in schools. The kids don’t have an option but to eat the food that is being served at the school. When it is a matter of survival, we cannot convince ourselves that the fundamental rights can take a back seat because a Fundamental right is the safety net that protects human dignity in the society.
History can be a great teacher in this matter. An article published in 2014 in Swarajya reports that “Since the 2004 tsunami, Southern Baptists have found opportunities to meet both physical and spiritual needs of those who survived the disaster. More than 4,000 people along the coast of India and into Bangladesh have professed faith in Christ and more than 1,400 churches have been started”. These figures suggest that there was a rapid spike in Christian faith conversion after the disaster. This is because there was a massive wave of Christian relief machineries during the Tsunami in 2004 in south India, wherein the immense tragedy of the victims was used for their advantage .
I find the treatment of the mid-day meal scheme to be no different from this incident. I believe it is always easier to convince people of certain ideological beliefs when they are at a vulnerable state of being. The children may also grow up to support the religious ideologies of some private organizations, without them even realizing it. They might assume what is prohibited to be wrong by default; if eggs are prohibited then that is what they learn — being a non-vegetarian is wrong. These aspects not only impose the ideological burden but also puts the nutritional security of children under threat. According to the NFHS -4 report, 42.4% of children in India are underweight. With the nutritional status of India being as fragile as this, and the Mid-day meal scheme being the pioneering project to ensure nutritional security, the mid-day meal program must be protected from ideological influences.
Practices around food already cause a lot of differences in our society. Lower caste children are made to sit separately. Upper caste children bring their plates to avoid contamination from their fellow lower caste classmates. Lower caste children are not allowed to drink water from common tumblers. Upper caste kids refuse food prepared by a lower caste cook. These are the gist of some of the headlines seen in the newspapers from time to time, majorly from states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar. For example, an article published in The Journal of Social Inclusion Studies points out a striking evidence on the discrimination faced by the SC children in various forms.
About one-third of the respondents reported facing discrimination in various forms, which ultimately hampers their studies and social life. The discrimination assumes forms such as being given lesser quantities of and poor quality of food, being subjected to separate seating arrangements, being served last and separately, being asked to bring their plates and water bottles from home, not being allowed to serve the food, and being served the food from a distance.
Therefore, it is clear that the Mid-Day meal scheme is acting as a tool to re-emphasize the caste discrimination. Two implications can be drawn out from this fact. Firstly, it is clear that the mind-set of the people hasn’t changed in terms of their attitude towards societal structures, especially the caste system. I wouldn’t say that Mid-day meal scheme per se is causing caste discrimination; it is only facilitating the suppressed monster to revive and reproduce. Secondly, only by blocking the growth of this poisonous branch, can we stop its further penetration into the system.
This scheme is growing in terms of its direct impact on people and therefore is also acquiring a power position on and of itself. Hence, it is becoming vulnerable and prone to the vested interests of political and monetary bodies regulating this scheme. Judicial interventions have to be taken up to protect this scheme from ideological influences. In my opinion, the most important approach in the management of the scheme, that needs due consideration of all, is looking at children, as the centre and direct beneficiary of the scheme. All the other aspects are built around this core. This scheme, therefore, should be treated with empathy; the scheme is not just the management of resources and external factors to fill the stomachs of children. An empathetic approach will yield in holistic handling of the scheme, and will also create a sense of accountability with stakeholders. This scheme stands tall as the biggest school lunch program in the world. This is an opportunity with India, to emerge as a role model amongst the world nations. A successful implementation will not just empower children, but will also boost India’s image as a successful democracy. This can only occur if we learn to embrace and accept the fault lines and yearn to improvise it.
Vaishnavi Sankar is both an adult who pretends to understand something and a child curiously asking critical questions to expand her understanding. Born in a highly orthodox family, educated in a contrastingly liberal institution she can see the righteousness of both sides which in her opinion, is an intellectually nourishing complexity and a painfully indecisive reality. She is a compassionate, socially aware, and thus a socially concerned individual who has developed a liking for writing very recently.