“We don’t eat as many eggs at home as we used to do regularly in school. Okkosari (once in a while), we get to eat eggs now,” said eight-year-old Siddu Nayak, as he plays with his friends in the deserted Dameracheruvu Thanda, a tribal hamlet in Telangana’s Medak district. Dameracheruvu Thanda has a primary school that has over 30 students studying in classes 1-5. While the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic has affected the education of students across sections owing to the shift online, it is a double whammy for children like Siddu who hail from vulnerable sections and depend on protein and other nutritious food that government schools and residential welfare schools provide as part of the midday meal.
TNM visited a few places in Siddipet, Medak, Kamareddy and Nizamabad districts, and spoke to government school students between the ages of 6 and 14 and their parents, to understand how the disruption in midday meals since March 2020 continues to impact them. Many parents said that their children are not starving, but are deprived of high-protein food like eggs, which used to be a regular in their daily meals until the schools closed last year.
Globally, nearly 370 million children’s nutrition was impacted by the closure of schools, according to a report by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in January 2021. The report identified that India has the largest number of beneficiaries with about 100 million children depending on in-school midday meals for the critical source of protein and other nutrients, which helps prevent stunted growth and anaemia, among other deficiencies and illnesses. It noted, “The educational and nutritional disruption caused by school closures will have long-term consequences if not handled appropriately.”
Telangana has over 30,000 state-run schools, including 3,436 residential schools. Around 28 lakh students (46.1%), who mostly hail from the weaker sections, study in public-funded schools. The state has 886 Residential Welfare Schools, where lakhs of students from Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC), minorities and economically weaker sections are offered free education with free boarding facility.
The Telangana government allocates Rs 6.50 per day per student studying in Classes 6 to 10 (11 years to 15 years) and around Rs 4.35 for each student between Classes 1 and 5 (6 years to 10 years). According to the Telangana Socio-Economic Outlook 2021 report, as many as 27.8 lakh students are covered under the Midday Meals scheme, which is much lesser than 22.5% of children under 15 years old in the state.
As part of the midday meal scheme, each student receives lunch that comprises vegetables and rice daily along with three eggs (a source of protein) per week. The residential welfare schools offer a different menu, which includes meat such as chicken and mutton beside eggs and vegetables.
“We eat one egg once a week or chicken once in 10-15 days. It was different in the welfare school. We used to have eggs and meat on our menu regularly,” said a Class 10 student from Rameshwarpally village in Kamareddy district, who is now attending classes online.
“It’s not that we don’t have eggs or meat in our diet after the pandemic began,” said K Soundarya, mother of a Class 6 student from Rampur of Siddipet district. “If the government had continued the distribution of eggs and other supplements just like they are doing for lactating mothers and children under 5 years, children would have benefitted.”
As part of ArogyaLaxmi programme, the Telangana government is providing one full meal (rice, vegetables, dal and curry) to pregnant women, lactating mothers and their infants for at least 25 days, and a boiled egg and 200 ml of milk for 20 days in a month, to prevent undernourishment. While the Anganwadi centres continue to remain shut due to the pandemic, workers have been door-delivering necessary groceries, eggs and milk to lactating mothers and pregnant women.
“Many families cannot afford to provide three eggs to one child in one week. Children from such families would definitely have a nutritional deficiency, which was earlier prevented due to the in-school meals,” Soundarya added.
According to Dr Subba Rao M Gavaravarapu, a scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) Hyderabad, midday meals meet about one-third of a child’s daily nutritional requirements. “If a child is deprived of nutrition, whether due to lack of midday meals or lack of consumption of food in general, it will certainly have short-term and long-term impacts. Undernourishment could lead to chronic energy deficiency and impact the growth spurt during adolescence. In children, it can lead to stunting. These can have long-term impacts on health and even compromise their future productivity,” he said, adding, “Inadequate nutrition can also impact the cognition levels of children in terms of understanding, reading and studying.”
Amid the lack of proper nutrition, many children are engaged in physically strenuous activities to earn extra income due to job losses brought on by the pandemic. Most of these students are from vulnerable families who rely on daily wages.
Thirteen-year-old D Rakshitha’s case showed that apart from being deprived of nutritious food, children are being forced into “passive child labour”. As a Class 8 student of the Tribal Welfare Residential School in Medak, Rakshitha is among those students who were forced to vacate the hostel and go back home when the lockdown was announced. Coming from an agricultural family, she has now joined her family in sowing paddy saplings on their one-acre farm due to the monsoon.
“Studies are anyway affected as it has become tough to listen to online classes through mobile,” said Rakshitha, who has been attending online classes using her father’s or cousin’s mobile, which she gets access to only once in a while.
At her residential school, she was given milk, snacks, eggs daily, chicken once a week, and mutton twice a month. “It is not possible for us to get the kind of food and nutritious supplements we used to get in the residential school,” Rakshitha told TNM.
As many as 67% of girls between 11 and 16 years of age study in government-run schools, which shows that they are major beneficiaries of the midday meal scheme.
During TNM’s visit, many children under the age of 15 were seen grazing cattle, sheep or working in farms.
Chiguru Lingam, a 13-year-old, was seen grazing a herd of sheep near Chittapur of Dubbak in Siddipet district, holding a long stick in one hand and a tiffin box in the other. The boy told TNM that he attended his one-hour online class at home over a smartphone and tended to the sheep until his father took over.
Isidore Philips, Director of Divya Disha Childline, a child rights organisation, noted that children’s right to food and nutrition has been the most neglected aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The stopping of the midday meals is a grave violation of the right to food, and a big mistake,” he said. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to life and personal liberty. This should be read with Article 47, which directs states to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of their people and public health.
“The government should look into it (midday meals) as a stand-alone component of the pandemic. If a child is registered in the school, he/she should get nutritious food, if not the government should at least ensure that something like supplements are delivered to their house,” said Isidore, adding that government schools should connect with students in some way “as the school is not just a place of learning but also a social agency.”
In March 2020, just days into the pandemic, the Supreme Court of India, taking suo motu cognisance of the closure of the midday meals scheme, said, “Non-supply of nutritional food to children may lead to large-scale malnourishment. Particularly, children in rural as well as tribal areas are prone to such malnourishment.” The apex court directed state governments to formulate a uniform policy that will not adversely affect the scheme and provide nutritional food to children. Subsequently, states like Kerala tried to address the concern by arranging alternative measures to supplement nutrition deficiency.
While UNICEF, too, recommends home-delivery of rations, cash-transfer or food vouchers, it noted that these are not long-term solutions. “Priority should be given to reopening schools safely as school-based targeting and delivery of nutrition are more cost-effective and have been shown to yield substantial benefits in education and health outcomes,” it said in its report.
TNM reached out to the Director of School Education Department to understand whether the Telangana government is doing or planning any measures such as a compensatory alternative nutrition drive. However, there has been no response from the office so far.
(With inputs from Balakrishna Ganeshan)