Tamil Nadu

News Analysis | Chennai school breakfast scheme kicks up nutrition row

(From left) Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Akshaya Patra chiarman Madhu Pandit Dasa and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam during the inauguration of Akshaya Patra’s central kitchen building in Chennai on February 15, 2020.

(From left) Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Akshaya Patra chiarman Madhu Pandit Dasa and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam during the inauguration of Akshaya Patra’s central kitchen building in Chennai on February 15, 2020.   | Photo Credit: S. R. Raghunathan

Akshaya Patra Foundation’s no-garlic, no-onion ‘satvik’ food could be a precursor to privatising the “Puratchi Thalaivar MGR Nutritious Meal Programme”, fear Opposition leaders.

Tamil Nadu is no stranger to the politics of food. This time, a political controversy has broken out over the “Kaalai Unnavu Thittam” — a free breakfast scheme for the children of the Greater Chennai Corporation-run schools.

The Opposition has not only objected to the implementation of the scheme through a pact between the local body and the Akshaya Patra Foundation but has also questioned the provision of only ‘satvik’ food — sans garlic and onion — to the children. Their apprehension is that the government has overlooked the nutrition factor and that the scheme is a precursor to privatising the “Puratchi Thalaivar MGR Nutritious Meal Programme”. Presently, breakfast is provided to 5,785 children of 24 schools.

MDMK leader Vaiko has even questioned Governor Banwarilal Purohit’s decision to donate ₹5 crore from his discretionary fund for the scheme and the move to allot land on the Greams Road and the Perambur Barracks Road for establishing central kitchens for the project. “Does a Governor have the authority to gift government money to a private body,” he asked while criticising the ‘satvik’ menu. [The response from the Governor’s office is awaited.]

DMK MP Kanimozhi has charged that the government now wants to “make students who eat onion and garlic to eat what they [rulers] want”. She too felt that involving a voluntary agency would lead to privatisation of the successful nutritious meal scheme, which every government despite ideological differences had focused on expanding.

It is not as if the State had not involved philanthropic institutions in the past. In fact, senior Congress functionary A. Gopanna concedes this point in the context of the Kamaraj regime’s mid-day meal scheme in late 1950s. But “the implementation was with the government. It should remain so,” he said.

Also read | School breakfast scheme: T.N. open to tie-ups with voluntary sector | Governor releases ₹2 crore for school breakfast scheme | Vaiko predicts ‘Manu Dharma’ meal scheme

Then, why the hue and cry now? Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi MP D. Ravikumar argues that back then a resource crunch had prompted the government to seek outside help. “But, now, this is no longer the case. It is a matter of the government’s will to carry out the breakfast scheme out of its resources. Alternatively, it can tap funds from the private sector through Corporate Social Responsibility.” He also questioned why the Akshaya Patra Foundation should be chosen considering the controversy surrounding it in Karnataka.

Indeed, the ‘satvik food’ controversy echoed in the Lok Sabha last July. But Union Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ had countered it citing the stand taken by the Karnataka government that there was no change to the food, after taking the opinion from the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru, and the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.

Also read | Why are Karnataka’s schoolchildren unhappy with the mid-day meal?

As for fears of the nutritious meal scheme being ‘privatised’, a senior official categorically says, “We are not allowing anyone into the noon meal scheme.”

“It [the breakfast scheme] is an additional benefit to the kids,” argues G. Prakash, Corporation Commissioner, indicating that the State having a “very strong” department with a long history of managing such a scheme is the proof [for ensuring the continuance of the scheme].

There are however calls to closely monitor both the schemes to avoid complications. Former State Social Welfare Secretary P.M. Basheer Ahamed says the government should retain “strict control” at the points of production, distribution and consumption.

The row may acquire more intensity when the government extends the scheme to the other parts of the State, given its keenness. But it would do well to lay down guidelines for the selection of the participating firms and monitoring their performance.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 12:32:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/news-analysis-akshaya-patra-foundations-no-garlic-no-onion-satvik-food-in-chennai-school-breakfast-scheme-overlooks-nutrition-factor-says-opposition/article30862957.ece

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