The Disruption of Mid-Day Meal Scheme: Enforcing the Right to Nutrition
By Jitamanyu Sahoo*
The COVID-19 pandemic has breached the social security safety net for the vulnerable in India and globally. The pandemic along with continuous shutdown measures adopted by States have impacted the global food security. But the most alarming of it all was the global scale of school closures. The closure of schools not only disrupted education but also adversely affected access to basic nutrition for children. This has resulted in an ongoing nutritional crisis which is depriving generations of children of their potential to contribute in the future.
The United Nations in its policy report on the ‘impact of COVID-19 on children’ states rising malnutrition is expected to affect around 370 million children across 143 countries who solely rely on meal in schools for their daily nutrition. Moreover, the challenge multiplies with the economic constraints due to the pandemic, negatively affecting the breastfeeding mothers, pregnant women and diets of infant children. Another vital report by the UNICEF on ‘COVID-19: Missing More Than a Classroom The impact of school closures on children’s nutrition ’highlights the glaring impact of pandemic on children health. The school nutritional programme approximately covers about 370 million children globally, with the largest beneficiaries being India (100 million) followed by Brazil (48 million), China (44million) and other countries. The pandemic has led to a 30 percent reduction in nutritional coverage which used to be achieved through school meals programme and amongst others India being badly affected.
In India, the mid-day meals scheme (MDMS) has been consequential in improving the enrolment ratio and attendance of children in schools. But its core objective in ensuring nutritional security of children has been significant. The MDMS has catered to about 9.17 crore children in 11.35 lakh schools across the country in 2018-2019 and its dependency has only grown thereafter. However, the closure of schools for prolonged period has resulted in a rising nutritional gap which is crucial for cognitive development in children.
MDMS response to the pandemic
In India, the MDMS proliferates at the State and Union territory levels. The execution of the MDMS takes into account the local dietary practice, geographic variability and population density of the States. The decentralized approach which is a key for efficient decision-making by the States was stalled due to the lockdown measures. Though, the central government directed the States and Union Territories to keep providing the MDM to students during the lockdown but the children continue to miss their meals.
For many children, the MDMS is the only source of their daily intake of nutrition. The concurrent assessment conducted by the Save the Children Foundation (SCF) surveying 7,235 families across 15 states concluded that 40 percent of children were not provided meals during the lockdown. The assessment further mentions 38 per cent of rural and 40 per cent of urban children were not receiving MDM. The nutritional deficit deepened when food insecurity exacerbated by following loss of jobs pushed the vulnerable sections into extreme poverty.
The States have responded differently to address the MDMS challenges in this pandemic. Andhra Pradesh distributed dry rations to its beneficiaries. Under the scheme rice, eggs and chikkis were provided to the children. Bihar government assured Rs. 358 to the primary and Rs. 536 to the upper primary students directly to the ward’s parents’ account. But the disbursed amount is not sufficient to meet the nutritional requirements, according to experts. The withdrawal of MDMS for a long period of time in Bihar has left children surviving on roti-onion and rice-pickle which is directly related to stunted or underweight children in the State.
Chhattisgarh in adopting a liberal testing policy assured 40-day dry dal and rice to the children of the schools. Each student of primary school would be given 4 kg of rice and 800 grams of dal and 6 kg of rice and 1,200 grams of dal would be distributed to each student of higher secondary schools. Kerala government is distributing rice kits through mid-day meal committee and parents’ teacher association.
The MDMS comes with an enormous administrative and logistics responsibilities, and, therefore switching to food grains, dry rations and income transfers is to be considered as an immediate alternative. But over 13 months of disruptive MDMS will certainly lead to adverse consumption choices thus affecting the nutritional intake amongst children.
Right to Nutritional Food
With the disarray in functioning of MDMS, the Supreme Court of India took suo motto cognisance. In the case Re: Regarding Closure of Mid Day Meal Scheme, the Chief Justice of India observed that, “non-supply of nutritional food to children may lead to large-scale malnourishment. Particularly, the children in rural as well as tribal area are prone to such malnourishment.” The Supreme Court further lamented, “in dealing with one crisis, the situation may not lead to another crisis. In that view of the matter, it is necessary, that all the States should come out with a uniform policy so as to ensure, that while preventing spread of COVID-19, the schemes for providing nutritional food to the children are not adversely affected.”
An expansionist observation was also made by the Karnataka High Court where MDMS was not implemented. The bench of Justices B.V. Nagarathna and J.M. Khazi noted that, “if the schools have been kept open, then necessarily mid- day meals have to be provided to the students who are attending schools”. The court in an inclusive note stated, “provision of mid-day meal is a necessary concomitant of the fundamental right under Article 21A of the Constitution of India.”
In spite of the intervention of judiciary in ensuring nutritional security to our children, the States’ delayed efforts have placed generations of children under health risk. The States should restart anganwadis and hot meal services on takeaway basis; services of community-based support groups should be employed to increase the outreach and in addition to the budget allocation the corporate social responsibility should be directed to strengthen the meals services.
The writer is a lawyer and has a Masters Degree from National Law University (NLU), Delhi. He writes on public health, law, health, justice, urban law and human security.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.