An excerpt from Anchoring Change: Seventy-Five Years of Grassroots Intervention That Made a Difference

In the 75 years since independence, grassroots interventions, driven by the state, market and civil society, have influenced the nature, shape and scope of social action. In Anchoring Change: Seventy-Five Years of Grassroots Intervention That Made a Difference , the editors, Vikram Singh Mehta, Neelima Khetan and Jayapadma RV, present 24 stories of successful grassroots intervention since Independence which offer learnings for the creation of a development framework for the next 75 years. In his introduction, Mehta writes that the Midday Meal scheme in schools in Tamil Nadu, is arguably the best known government intervention, and among the first to link food and nutrition to education and development. An excerpt: 

Mahendran (68) of Singampatti in Tirunelveli district, a father of two sons, smiled as he ended the call with his son, a software engineer in the U.S. His son had been blessed with a child and he looked forward to travelling to their home to celebrate the arrival of the newborn. His younger son had just graduated from a reputed college. Mahendran himself had recently retired as a senior officer in the service of the government of Tamil Nadu and was happy that things had indeed turned out well. As he counted his blessings, his thoughts drifted to his childhood and his village where it had all begun almost six decades ago.

Born into the Puthirai Vannan community, considered ‘untouchable’, he remembered the many days that he had gone to sleep on an empty stomach. His family’s traditional occupation was washing the clothes of Dalit families in the village. For this back-breaking work from dawn to dusk, they were often paid in kind with food grains at harvest time. In the years when the rains failed and the harvest was meagre, it would be difficult to even have two square meals a day. With his survival at stake and even two meals a day being uncertain, school seemed a distant dream for him. Much as he longed to go to the village school, his absence from work would mean going hungry for the day.

In 1956, poverty was rampant in India, with up to 73 per cent of the population in rural areas living below the poverty line. The total number of children enrolled in schools was an abysmal 5.6 lakhs in the age group of 11–14 years and 1.81 lakhs for those aged 14–16 years for the entire State. The Chief Minister, K. Kamaraj, was acutely aware of how poverty and hunger were conspiring to keep children out of school. He sought to address the issue by introducing a hugely ambitious and transformational scheme of serving an afternoon meal in all schools of Tamil Nadu. Kamaraj overcame opposition from many quarters to ensure that the government started providing hot meals to students in schools. For many impoverished children, it often became the only meal of the day. School enrolments saw a dramatic increase.

Life-changing policy 

Among the new students was Mahendran, who ran barefoot to the elementary school in his village early every morning. The noon meal at school not only satiated him but also gave him a respite from his strenuous work. The meal made it possible for Mahendran to break the shackles of hunger, go to school, study and reach for the skies. It was his ticket to freedom from hunger, illiteracy and deprivation, and would go on to change his life forever. He went on to become the first postgraduate from his community. Mahendran says, ‘If the school had not served me a hot meal, there was no way I would have gone to school. I would have continued to wash clothes for a living.’

The noon meal programme of the Tamil Nadu government is still in force and is making a difference to lakhs of poor students who would otherwise have found it difficult to attend school. Like Mahendran, generations have benefitted immensely from this scheme, and it has changed the destiny of many from a life of stark poverty and hunger to dignity, self-respect and a life-changing education. The noon-meal scheme not only eradicated hunger from classrooms but also substantially improved student enrolment, retention and education levels in Tamil Nadu, laying the foundations for the State to emerge as an economic powerhouse.

Nationwide application 

The Puratchi Thalaivar MGR Nutritious Meal Programme, as it has come to be known, has emerged as a pioneering example for the rest of India. Today, it stands tall as Tamil Nadu’s contribution to the pantheon of developmental interventions that have transformed India. After the huge popularity and stupendous success of the programme, the Central Government announced the ‘National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education’ on Independence Day in 1995. Initially implemented in 2,408 blocks around the country, within two years the scheme was in force in all blocks in all States and Union Territories. In 2007, upper primary children were added to the programme.

Initially, the States were reluctant to participate in the scheme; but after the Supreme Court issued a directive to all States to provide cooked midday meals in primary schools, the programme’s coverage increased manifold between 1999 and 2004. Now, the programme is being implemented across the country by the Government of India as the Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman scheme with the twin objectives of ensuring good health of students and securing better educational outcomes.

The initiative started in just one school of Madras in 1920 has now not only continued for more than a hundred years but has also become one of the largest programmes of its kind in the world. The journey of a hundred years is a story interspersed with stellar milestones, each of which added substantial value to the programme and its sustainability.

Anchoring Change: Seventy-Five Years of Grassroots Intervention That Made a Difference; Edited by Vikram Singh Mehta, Neelima Khetan, Jayapadma RV, HarperCollins, ₹699.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins.

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 2:29:26 pm |