When ration ran dry for Delhi schoolchildren

State government failed to pick up any mid-day meal grains for three months and North MCD for nine months last year

Published - October 09, 2021 02:43 am IST - NEW DELHI

Mid-day ordeal:  People in large numbers waiting for free ration at a govt. school in Vishwas Nagar, Delhi.  File photo

Mid-day ordeal: People in large numbers waiting for free ration at a govt. school in Vishwas Nagar, Delhi. File photo

Before the pandemic struck, 9-year-old Anamika was used to eating kadhi-chawal , aloo-puri or sambar-chawal for lunch every day as part of the government’s mid-day meal scheme at her Municipal Corporation of Delhi school in R.K. Puram. Since schools closed last March, however, regular meals have been hard to come by at her home in the nearby slum area of Motilal Nehru Camp.

Anamika’s mother Prema trekked to the school several times, asking about the dry ration which had been promised in lieu of the mid-day meals, but received nothing for her daughter, who studies in Class V, or her son Arav, who studies in Class II, until July 2021, 15 months after schools were shut.

Their story is not unique. The Delhi government did not lift any foodgrains allocated for the scheme for an entire quarter during the pandemic, affecting 16 lakh students in more than 3,000 schools, according to data provided by Central and State governments. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi-North, which runs 721 primary schools with over three lakh students, did not lift or distribute foodgrains for nine months last year, according to the minutes of a meeting held on June 29, 2021, between State and Central education department officials to consider the annual plan and budget for the mid-day meal scheme.

According to the minutes, School Education Secretary Anita Karwal expressed “shock” and “deep concern for the children who were deprived of the benefit for three quarters of 2020-21” and warned the Delhi government that “this is a clear violation of the directions of the Supreme Court of India and amounts to contempt”. She observed “a sheer lack of management and coordination issue among all the implementing agencies”.

Cash transfer

Delhi government representatives informed the Centre that “after closure of schools due to pandemic, cost of foodgrains and cooking cost was transferred in the bank account of the beneficiaries [as a food security allowance] and later, dry ration kits were distributed. In North MCD though, tender of the suppliers had expired but still the dry ration kit was prepared with the help of Kendriya Bhandar and distributed in some schools, however, foodgrain could not be lifted,” according to the minutes.

Data provided by the Delhi Directorate of Education in response to an RTI request filed by activist Anjali Bhardwaj in January 2021 shows that no foodgrains allocated for the mid-day meal scheme were lifted during April to June 2020. Another RTI shows that instead, a food security allowance of ₹5.22 per day for primary students and ₹7.83 for upper primary was transferred to children. From July to September 2020, Delhi picked up the full 10,454 tonnes of grains for the scheme, but that dropped again to a deficit 2,913 tonnes for the next two quarters, the RTI showed.

Education Ministry officials say that despite extensions to allow the Delhi government to pick up the grains it failed to lift last year, it has not yet done so. “One of the problems in Delhi is that they do not have a system of school-wise preparation of mid-day meals as in many States. Instead, it is all outsourced to contractors who directly pick up the allocated grains from the Food Corporation of India godowns, add needed pulses and vegetables, prepare the food at centralised kitchens and distribute to the schools,” explained a senior Ministry official. “During the pandemic, this system collapsed. But it is highly irresponsible that they have not managed to create an alternate system even after one year.”

The official added that the food security allowance only gave students the subsidised cost of mid-day meal grains, which they would have had to use to purchase rice and wheat at full market price.

“There are also structural problems within the Delhi school system. The AAP government runs schools mostly for upper primary students [Class VI-VIII], while most primary schools are run by the MCDs which are run by the BJP. But irrespective of the political differences among themselves, they have been utterly callous towards the children, and deprived them of their rights at a difficult time,” said the official.

The Delhi government spokesperson did not offer a comment despite multiple calls and messages.

In July 2021, Arav and Anamika were each given 10 kg of grains, split between wheat and rice, and 2 kg of chana dal, along with a pack of vanaspati. Their elder sister Ritika, however, who studies in Class VII in a school run by the Delhi government, has received ration packs three times since the schools were closed. None of the children received any food security allowance due to difficulties in obtaining and accessing bank accounts in their names.

Their mother is a domestic worker who has lost work since the lockdown, as has her husband who is a daily wage worker. “My husband has only one phone, so the children cannot even attend online classes properly. At least, they used to get food in school earlier, but now they sit hungry at home. This has been a wasted year,” she added.

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