An anecdote popular about former chief minister of Tamil Nadu Kamaraj is: once during a drive by car, he had to wait for the train to pass at a level cross for a while. When some children were seen herding the cattle and passing by, he asked why they did not go to school. Kamaraj, who was basically averse to extravagance and official frills, was said to have no beacon light on his official car. But some of the children who recognized him for the chief minister said "If we go to school, who will give us food?" And this incident is said to have inspired him to introduce providing mid-day meal in schools of Tamil Nadu.
Whether this story is fact or fiction, it points to the imperative of serving mid-day meal in schools. No doubt, this ensures the health and education of the new generation who have to lead the nation tomorrow. About the same time, under the leadership of a non-government voluntary organization, mid-day meal was launched in the lower primary schools in Kerala too. In the 1980s, the government took over that scheme thereby presenting a model to the country. In 1995, central government adopted the scheme across the country. Now, it can no more be called mid-day porridge, but real lunch in its full sense.
What is served to the children now is a meal with essential calorific value and protein according to the age of children. Authorities have also issued clear guidelines on how to include grains, pulses, vegetable, oil and fat in the meal. And it is sufficiently funded too. Then, why is it that we have to hear stories of chapati and salt alone being served instead of full meal with all side dishes? The latest news has come from Uttar Pradesh, the state where the Central government spends the largest amount on mid-day meal. But when the journalist Pavan Jaiswal reported the incident of chapathi and salt being distributed, the government of Yogi Adityanath once again showed its 'jungle raj' policy by filing a case against the journalist.
The amount granted for the current year for mid-day meal distribution in Kerala is Rs 342 crore. Most of the schools of the state prove that with this amount, good quality food can be served. In other words, the funds allocated are adequate to meet the need. It is worth mentioning that 60 per cent of the granted amount comes from the Centre's share. To put it otherwise, the states that are favoured by the Centre should face no difficulty in obtaining such grants. Natually, in a state like UP nothing short of a wholesome meal scheme is to be expected; and records display it too. For, in the website of the Mid-Day Meal Authority, mention is made of the state winning a 'gold medal' for their exemplary performance.
When things move to the villages of UP, the mid-day meal gets shrunken to chapati. It was such a chapati distribution in a school in Mirzapur district that the journalist Pavan Jaiswal found first-hand. But then it transpired that until a few days ago, only rice and salt were served there. Evidence had emerged earlier also of rotten vegetables and frog meat being served in another village of Chitrakoot district in UP itself. In some schools, some insects were also reported to be provided as daily food. Following this, many children stopped going to school. But remember, the mid-day meal grant for the state is Rs 600 crore. The channel this money goes away is clear. And it also bears the answer to the question why, despite spending crores, low body weight and inadequate growth continue to ail our children.
It is estimated that currently 12 crore children are beneficiaries of mid-day meal scheme. In addition to ensuring the food and health of that number of children, it also guarantees their primary education. That they get better food than what they get at home is also a reality of present-day rural India. Therefore, the erstwhile trend of forgoing education due to poverty has come down, as vouched for by authentic studies.
This move along the right track is marred only by corruption. There is no doubt that this is what happened in places like Mirzapur. The pity is that in spite of this, authorities are not taking the necessary action. But in Mirzapur, action has been taken not against the authorities but against the journalist who brought it to light before the people. He has also been charged with conspiracy against the government. The same injustice that was committed last year by the Yogi government against the altruistic doctor Kafeel Khan, is now being repeated in this. If this is not 'jungle raj', what else is it?