Opposition parties in Tamil Nadu have condemned the state government's decision to allow the Akshaya Patra Foundation to serve breakfast in Chennai Corporation's schools in the city. The DMK and MDMK have alleged that a 'Hindutva' agenda will be forced on the eating habits of students through this scheme and that it was announced without any prior intimation or a tender process, as legally expected.
The Bengaluru-based NGO runs mid-day meals in schools in many states across the country and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Chennai Corporation to run two centralised kitchens at Greams Road and at Perambur Barracks Road. From the centralised kitchen, it was announced that dishes such as upma, idlis, poha, khichdi, and pongal will be served on every working day in schools. The kitchen that will come up in Perambur Barracks Road will feed 15,000 children. The meals provided by TAPF or the Akshata Patra Foundation normally does not include garlic or onion, as they prepare only â€˜satvikâ€™ meals. In states like Karnataka, they also do not provide eggs in their meals.
Condemning this decision, MDMK Chief Vaiko said that TAPF was run by Iskon, an organisation that promoted 'Hindutva'.
"In Karnataka, Iskon has already been accused of of giving school children sambar without onions and garlic. Due to this, children are unable to eat this food and even throwing it away. In Tamil Nadu, the nutritious meal scheme, includes eggs, while Iskon only serves vegetarian food. Even in developed countries school students get meat," he said. "Taking this into consideration, this organisation is working against the food habit of the Tamil population. So, this nutritious meal scheme will no longer be what MGR envisioned but will become a Manu Dharma meal scheme" he added.
Vaiko also stated that the scheme was announced in a secretive fashion by the state government. Questioning the financial decisions made regarding the scheme, he stated that prime property including 20,000 sq. ft land in Greams Road and 35000 sq. ft land at the Perambur Barracks Road has been given to the organisation. (It is however not clear if the land has been leased out, given on rent or sold to TAPF, TNM will add TAPF's response once it comes.)
"The worth of this land could be more than Rs 500 crore. No other organisation was allowed to give a proposal for this. Everything has happened secretively and this is against the law. The Edappadi government is bowing down to pressure from someone," he alleged.
The MDMK chief further questioned how Governor Banwarilal Purohit could decide to give Rs.5 crore to a private organisation.
Echoing these questions, the DMK too criticised the state government's decision.
"What the government has done is completely wrong. Akshaya Patra has already been accused of food fascism and we don't want that to happen in the state of Tamil Nadu. We already have a successful mid-day meal scheme, there is no need to bring in a new organisation," says Saravanan, a DMK spokesperson. "The cost of the land given, Rs.500 crore, does not match the services offered by Akshaya Patra. Even legally, this decision won't stand because you have to see which organisation will meet all necessary parameters before taking a call," he adds.
The DMK points out that the company chosen should offer meals in line with local food habits and has to be tested for nutritional value of meals, cost and hygiene.
TAPF already serves 5,090 children in the city, in 16 government and government aided schools through its kitchen in Thiruvanmiyur. Established in 2000, it works with different state governments and provides meals to 16,856 schools across 12 states and two union territories in India.
Earlier in a similar instance in Karnataka, there were several protests to keep TAPF from renewing its contract with the government. This came after various social activists came together and stated that children must be given meals containing garlic and onions and must be given eggs. However, in March 2019, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the state government and the organisation, allowed TAPF to continue serving mid-day meals. No conclusion has been reached regarding the inclusion of garlic and onions in their meals.