'Free breakfast scheme, no Hindutva agenda’: Chennai Corp Commissioner on Akshaya Patra

In an interview to TNM, Chennai Corporation Commissioner Prakash said that the controversy is uncalled for and onion, garlic were anyway not part of traditional Tamil food.
'Free breakfast scheme, no Hindutva agenda’: Chennai Corp Commissioner on Akshaya Patra
'Free breakfast scheme, no Hindutva agenda’: Chennai Corp Commissioner on Akshaya Patra

The Kalai Unavu Thittam or breakfast scheme inaugurated last year by the Chennai Corporation, has led to a controversy in Tamil Nadu after the government announced its expansion last Sunday. The scheme which began as an experiment in 16 schools and with 6,000 children will now cover the morning meal of 30,000 more students in schools run by the civic body. And while the effort to provide breakfast to underprivileged students is appreciated, roping in Bengaluru based NGO Akshaya Patra to serve these meals has led to strong criticism from opposition parties in the state.

TAPF or the Akshaya Patra Foundation which is run by Iskon, only prepares ‘satvik’ food items and does not include garlic, onion or eggs in their meals. The DMK and MDMK have alleged that a 'Hindutva' agenda will be forced on the eating habits of students through this scheme and termed it food fascism. Moreover they have questioned why the organisation has been given prime property on Greams road by the Corporation, which did not reach out to any other NGOs or make a public announcement before selecting Akshaya Patra for the scheme.

TNM spoke to Chennai Corporation Commissioner Prakash about the objection raised against the scheme and the involvement of Akshaya Patra. Here are the excerpts of the interview.

Will garlic and onion be excluded from the meals which served for breakfast in the Corporation schools? The opposition says you are changing the food habits of Tamilians.

Yes, they will be excluded. Even in schools where their services began last year they are not serving food items with garlic and onion. But at the same time, we are not compelling any student to come eat breakfast at school. The food that TAPF provides is very tasty. It includes pongal, rava, khichdi and other breakfast foods. The sambar they serve will not have garlic and onion. However, we are not changing any Tamil food habits. Onion and garlic are not traditionally Tamil food, they got introduced later.

Akshaya Patra has been accused of promoting a Hindutva agenda by this exclusion of certain items from its food. Is the Corporation enabling this?

As an organisation they have certain policies of not using these two ingredients because it will generate heat. That is their concept. But they are providing a very nutritious and healthy breakfast without any compromise on vitamins and proteins, so it is not an issue. As long my students are fed healthy food, I am content. Before eating this breakfast we don't make the students pray or follow any Hindu rituals.  It is the free will of the children.

This benefit reaches 36,000 students and there is no religious activity involved. The NGO is not preaching to the students or even interacting with them. Our ayahs serve the food while the teachers supervise. Akshaya Patra brings containers of food from the centralised kitchen in hot packs, deliver it to the institute and leave.

How will this affect the noon meal scheme?

This is not a competition to the noon meal scheme which already exists now under government systems. It is a breakfast scheme started first in our Corporation. Lunch will continue to be served with onion, garlic and eggs. The aim of the scheme is to provide nutritious and healthy breakfast to all the 1 lakh students enrolled in our schools.

We want to ensure healthy breakfasts are available in the 281 schools run by the Chennai Corporation. In the first phase, we started with Thiruvanmiyur last February. That kitchen caters to 6,000 children. Our total enrollment is 1 lakh students while the authorised number is 1.5 lakh. We have 50,000 vacant seats. Our aim is to increase enrollment and fill it to maximum. We want students to come on time, be fed healthy food and lead a good life. Most of our children are from underprivileged sections of society and backward sections. An extra meal will go a long way in meeting their nutritional requirements.

Why wasn't a formal call for applications made for this scheme? The Opposition has said the MoU has been signed secretively.

Why should we call for applications? For everything, we can't call for tenders. We can do this if the Corporation was paying for the services or product. When they are giving it for free, it doesn't make sense to say no. No other organisation has approached us with such an offer. If some other organisations want to take care of the schools for a long-term period, we are ready to accommodate them. It won't work if it is only two or three days. If they come with a commitment of 10 years, financial strength and healthy background, we will let them serve.

You have given them prime property on Greams Road to set up a centralised kitchen. Has it been leased out? Why not just expand production in existing kitchens?

There is no lease or rent for the land that has been allotted. We have given them a 10-year agreement. After 10 years, they have to vacate. They cannot get involved in any commercial activity on that land. The minute they do that, we will rescind land and take it back. They are offering their services and giving free breakfast for the children. The land has been given because their services are for social welfare. Also, a centralised kitchen will ensure same quality and hygiene. We have to look at the economy of scale. In one kitchen, we can reduce manpower and increase automation. We are serving children and quality has to be controlled.

Have you seen desired results in schools where you have served breakfast?

In the 16 schools that we have started this scheme, attendance has increased and dropouts have almost become nil. Students come on time to school and are more disciplined. It will help them concentrate in class. This is important for us.

There were protests in Karnataka over the exclusion on onion, garlic and eggs in Akshaya Patra's meals. Do you fear similar resistance here?

In Bengaluru, 60% cost was borne by the government and they were serving mid-day meals. For us, the noon meal with these ingredients will continue without any change. The breakfast provided is additional and free. We should welcome any scheme that benefits the poor. Over the last year we have surveyed and tested their quality and service before signing this MoU. 

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