Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu's noon meal scheme in peril?

Domino effect: Activists worry that cutbacks in the noon meal scheme may hit already dwindling school enrolment numbers.

Domino effect: Activists worry that cutbacks in the noon meal scheme may hit already dwindling school enrolment numbers.  

The recent move to rationalise staff at over 8,900 noon meal centres across Tamil Nadu has set the cat among the pigeons. Any move to dilute the scheme will impact the quality and, in turn, the children, activists argue

Confusion reigned supreme in the social development sector in Tamil Nadu last week. The cause was a circular from the office of the Commissioner of Social Welfare that sought to rationalise the staff in over 8,900 noon meal centres where the strength of children was less than 25. Many people read it as a move to cut down the number of noon meal centres. That’s when panic set in.

However, the Social Welfare Department clarified that it was only following up on a 1992 rule, and was going to retain only two staff in these 8,900 centres, instead of the existing three members.

Each centre, as per existing arrangements, is entitled to a noon meal organiser, a cook and a cook’s assistant. V. Amuthavalli, Director, Social Welfare, reiterated that none of the noon meal centres would be closed. “We will only be shifting the organisers in centres that have less than 25 children. The cooks and assistant cooks will remain. And, an order has been issued not to shuffle organisers who are scheduled to retire in 2019,” she told The Hindu.

The noon meal scheme is one of the AIADMK’s flagship schemes. And it serves a definite nutritional purpose. To wind that down, to whatever extent, would be a serious setback for the State government, activists argued. No doubt, the development surprised many, given the fact that it is Tamil Nadu that has been the trendsetter in the implementation of the nutritious noon meal programme for pre-school and school children. The scheme, now called Puratchi Thalaivar M.G.R. Nutritious Meal Programme, is named after the party’s founder, M.G. Ramachandran.

Tamil Nadu's noon meal scheme in peril?

Strong disapproval

The reaction from the political class and representatives of noon meal staff has been one of strong disapproval. Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder S. Ramadoss and the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) deputy general secretary T.T. V. Dhinakaran were apprehensive that the move, which was likely to cause a “huge setback” to the cause of social welfare, would lead to “disastrous consequences”.

If the government goes ahead with its decision, workers at the centres preparing food would suffer “extensive burden and stress”, said A. Solaiyan, Madurai District Secretary, Tamil Nadu Nutritious Noon Meal Workers Association. Each centre must have three employees dedicated to the preparation and distribution of the afternoon meal. If a noon meal cook is tasked with preparing food for over 30 students, she/he must receive support and help from others, he argued.

Organisers to be hit

Noon meal organisers are the ones who would be hit hard by the move, said M. Innasi Muthu, who heads the Coimbatore district chapter of the Tamil Nadu Nutritious Noon Meal Workers Association. The organisers are in charge of buying vegetables, condiments and arranging for cooking gas cylinders. They also ensure that cooks are given the right quantity of rice, pulses, eggs and oil. “How does the government expect the organisers to be present at two places in the mornings,” he wonders, citing practical difficulties for the organisers in apportioning time to supervise the work of cooks at more than one centre.

There will be other ramifications. Karpagam of Modakurichi block in Erode, whose child is one of the beneficiaries of the scheme, fears that the move will have a direct bearing on the enrolment of students.

Regardless of the force behind arguments of those who want status quo ante to be maintained, what is indisputable is the dwindling strength of students of government schools in the State, which, in the words of a senior official of the Social Welfare Department, requires a deeper study.

Falling numbers

A document of the department reveals that compared to about 55.15 lakh children-beneficiaries in 2015-16, the tally is down to around 51.96 lakh now.

A representative of the Tiruchi district unit of the Noon Meal Employees Welfare Association acknowledges that in some schools, full-fledged noon meal centres are serving only a handful of students. For example, in Sankagiri, Salem district, a total of 29 noon meal centres serve less than 25 students.

The government appears unfazed by any criticism regarding its move to “redeploy” the staff. “How can you justify the present staffing pattern of about 13,450 persons working at about 8,900 centres, which are serving less than 25 children? Why should there be three people – noon meal organiser, cook and cook’s assistant – for every such centre,” questions the official, pointing out that that about 45% of the centres are serving less than 50 children.

The Central government, for instance, does not ordinarily provide for more than one staff per centre. Only a few States have the post of noon meal organisers.

Treading with caution

Even while sticking to its position, the State government is not oblivious to the past, wherein its attempt, through an order in 1992, to merge smaller centres serving less than 25 children-beneficiaries with nearby bigger ones failed, thanks to opposition from unions.

Conscious of history, the government dismisses talk that it is going to close down the centres. Only if there are two or more noon meal centres within a school’s premises will such centres be attached to the bigger one. Also, where they are in “close proximity”, a “merger” will take place.

“We are very much sensitive to the welfare of children-beneficiaries as well as interests of the staff. These factors will guide us while reorganising the staff. The whole exercise will be based on practical considerations and not blind adherence to certain norms,” asserts the official, adding that hilly regions and urban areas are exempted from the latest drive to “rationalise” the staffing pattern.

As per current plans, if a centre has less than 25 children, one of the three staff will have to move out. “Even on this count, we will be considerate with respect to those who are on the verge of retirement. Besides, choice of place of re-posting will be ascertained from those who are shifted,” the official explained.

As for the organisers being asked to look after more than one centre, the government’s response is that that such an arrangement will be a “temporary measure”. The State also claims that it provides a host of benefits to the staff working in the centres: special monthly pension, lump sum payment, festival advance, Pongal bonus, hill allowance, winter allowance, family benefit fund, new health insurance scheme, and appointment on compassionate grounds.

Notwithstanding its explanations in support of the move, the government should not, according to activists, give the impression that it is preparing the ground for phasing out a scheme that has earned widespread acclaim for the State.

(With inputs from R.Krishnamoorthy in Tiruchi, Syed Muthahar Saqaf in Salem, Sanjana Ganesh in Madurai,S.P. Saravanan in Erode, Rohan Premkumar in Udhagamandalam, Vivek Narayanan in Chennai and Karthik Madhavan in Coimbatore)

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2020 4:51:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/noon-meal-scheme-in-peril/article25862188.ece

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