The lockdown induced by the coronavirus pandemic has hit all sectors in India hard, but it has been especially tough on children who were attending government schools across the country. Activists have been saying that with schools closed, several children face the risk of child labour and trafficking. Others also point out that the mid-day meals, which are crucial for the growth and nourishment of these children, must be continued.
Almost two decades have passed since the mid-day meal became a part of the daily routine in government schools across the country, where children are fed a nutritious diet that includes egg, milk and other essential foods.
Speaking to IANS last week, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi also warned of the same, saying, "School closures have not only caused massive drop-outs of children who are now at heightened risk of being trafficked but it has also led to the denial of midday meals that has affected their health and nutrition."
So where do the five south states stand, in ensuring that mid-day meals that were provided to children before the lockdown, are continued even during the pandemic?
The Kerala government has been proactive in ensuring that children do not miss out on the mid-day meals. In March itself, measures were taken to deliver ingredients for mid-day meals to over three lakh children studying in anganwadis, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
VK Ajithkumar, Kerala Pradesh School Teachers Association President, said, "Excluding the holidays, we calculated 40 working days in the month of April and May. Then the rice required for each student was calculated based on the grade in which they study. Around 1.25 kg of rice for pre-primary students, 4 kg rice for lower primary students and higher amounts for upper primary class was fixed."
"Apart from that, groceries worth Rs 261 were also included in the kit. Parents or guardians had to collect it from the school. The next phase of distribution will begin soon. Earlier, the government had distributed food kits prior to Onam to all ration card holders. That is why the mid-day meal kits were not yet distributed," he added.
In March, Health Minister KK Shailaja said that about 3.7 lakh students in 33,115 anganwadis in the state would benefit out of the initiative taken up by the state government. The state government has also gone one step ahead.
"Usually, during vacations, mid-day meals were not provided. But considering this year's condition, the government had announced the food kits to children in the month of April and May. After that, Onam kits were distributed to all families. Now, the distribution of the next phase of mid-day meal kits will begin soon," KC Harikrishnan, General Secretary, Kerala School Teachers Association said.
The Andhra Pradesh government too, has been distributing mid-day meals to students, in the form of dry ration.
Speaking to TNM, Suresh Kumar, Headmaster, Zilla Parishad High School, Nidamanuru, Vijayawada (Rural) mandal, said that the dry ration includes rice, eggs and 'chikki'.
"We have received the ration in five installments. After the summer break, starting from June 12, so far, 9.3 kilos of rice per student have been provided, along with 56 eggs and 35 bars of chikki. Since eggs and chikki can perish after some time, weâ€™re giving them to students in installments," Suresh said.
Andhra Pradesh State Coordinator of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Tirupati Rao, said, "Anganwadi workers have been delivering the dry ration to the children's homes during the lockdown period. So far, we haven't come across any complaints of lapses in delivery."
Tamil Nadu has also taken up a similar approach.
"From March 17, 2020, we have been supplying dry rations to the beneficiaries since anganwadis are closed. Rice, pulses and eggs are being supplied once in 15 days at their houses by our workers," Malarvizhi, Joint Director, Anganwadi Services Scheme (ICDS), Tamil Nadu said.
However, a study in 2018 titled 'Access to child care, education and nutrition services by the urban homeless children in Greater Chennai Corporation' by the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban (IRCDUC) found that children from many homeless families were also dependant on Anganwadis for mid-day meals and for them, there is no alternative.
"Children constitute nearly 35% of the urban homeless population in Chennai of which 17% were between 0 to 5 years of age," the study said, adding, "46% of these children were accessing services from the anganwadi centres."
Reports highlight that these children do not have access to the meals or the ration, since the lockdown began in March.
Activists also point out that the government could do more. "The problem with distributing dry rations is that many families that send their children to anganwadis would have lost their livelihood in this lockdown. In such a scenario, it is not clear if they will put in the effort to cook these rations to feed the child. Also, these rations that are meant only for the child would have been shared among the entire family since they have no money to buy provisions," Professor Andrew Sesuraj, Department of Social Work, Loyola College, Chennai and State Convener of TN Child Rights Watch tells TNM.
Andrew suggests that instead of distributing dry rations, the government could have cooked the food in the centres and distributed that instead, to ensure that children get the required nutrition.
"We have been getting complaints that the rations are not reaching the beneficiaries and that there are gaps in the supply chain as well. So I am not sure if the implementation has been done well. I wish the government had given more thought to the ICDS programmes as a whole," he added.
The Karnataka government said that it has redistributed the food grains meant for the mid-day meals, via the Public Distribution System (PDS) scheme, where rations are handed out to families below the poverty line.
Speaking to TNM, SR Umashankar, Principal Secretary to the Government, Department of Primary and Secondary Education Department said, "We gave food grains in April by calculating the food grains per child until the end of May. From June, food grains have not been given as part of the mid-day meal scheme. We asked the Finance Department about this and since then, we have not given the food grains and instead food grains are being through the PDS system itself."
"Honorarium has been given to cooks and their staff members who cook the food for the mid-day meal scheme," he added.
However, activists say that the decision has not been implemented well on the ground.
"Schools were stopped abruptly in March. There were no discussions about what would happen with mid-day meals. Some of us had a discussion and raised our concerns because the mid-day meals were a lifeline for children from poor communities. We urged the state government to continue them and also asked the state government to track the health of children alongside setting up a distribution network for feeding students," Kavita Ratna, activist with the Concerned for Working Children (CWC) said.
"The ration was given in April for up to a month but there was an issue with this. Many students, especially high school students, stayed a fair distance away from their schools. Who was going to go across villages to deliver food?
The ration was just rice and we raised the issue that just rice is being given and other nutritional food should have been given," she added.
When the nation-wide lockdown was imposed, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao had promised 12 kg of free rice and other rations to BPL families as on Monday along with Rs 1,500 in cash for each member of the family. The state government said that with this move, the issue of mid-day meals not being provided to children would be solved.
However, as a result, large quantities of rice could potentially get spoilt in the state.
"Rice is being stored in respective schools, each school would have around half quintal to 10 quintals of rice in reserve depending on the school's strength. Mid-day meals stopped since March, when the lockdown was announced. The Education Department raised concerns that the rice grains could get spoiled and asked the Civil Supplies department to take the rice to godowns to use it off and replace it later. However there has been response yet," Medchal District Education Officer (DEO) Vijaya Kumari told TNM.
"Meanwhile, technical teams from the civil supplies department have gone to the schools and have checked the quality of rice. Schools are taking preventive measures to protect the rice from insects and pests," she added.
The senior official also said that there were no guidelines at present with regard to home delivery of the rice to students.
Telangana Parents Association President, N Narayana, said, "Telangana is the only state which has not taken any initiative to make sure that the students are getting the share of their mid day meals. Amid the lockdown, several people who are depending on their daily wages have lost their incomes. At least, if students were provided with dry rations, it would have been handy for their families."
"The state government is not putting any effort for the welfare of the students in this regard," he added.
With inputs from Rajeswari Parasa, Prajwal Bhat, Haritha John, Jahnavi Reddy and Megha Kaveri