FROM THE READERS’ EDITOR | Columns

A debate that divides

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An ideological prism should not be used to malign a journalistic inquiry

Polarisation in not restricted to our body politic alone; it is seeping into the vitals of our social fabric, leading to a situation where there is little dialogue. Nothing exemplifies this divide better than the debate over the feature, “The politics of food” (Magazine, June 2).

A range of interviews

As a news ombudsman, I have to address two questions. One, what did the story say that provoked such angry responses and counter-responses? And two, did the story meet the crucial requirements of journalism or was it just lazy opinion masquerading as a feature? The story asked why Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF), run by Iskcon, refuses to add onion or garlic to the mid-day meals (MDM) it provides in Karnataka even though the children crave the familiar taste.

It was a story based on interactions with the beneficiaries of the affirmative action, the children. It was neither a quick opinion piece quoting just one critical expert, nor did it black out the opinions of those who support the programme. If children find the food unpalatable, is it right for anyone else to say that they should not complain and instead eat what is provided to them? Isn’t this an indication that the purpose of the affirmative action has been turned on its head? The report drew its larger conclusion based on interviews with a range of people, including the children, the director of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), the principal secretary of education in Karnataka, and Right to Food activists. It also quoted APF.

Was the story hurriedly written as some Twitter warriors claim? If it failed to provide the arguments advanced by the defenders of the scheme, then it would be fair to term it an attack. But the report recorded the opinions of most of the agencies involved. It cited what NIN said when it gave a formal nod to APF’s menu: “The nutritive values of menus with ingredients used in the mentioned amounts certainly meet and often exceed the prescribed energy (Kcal) and protein requirements prescribed by MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) for the MDM.” It also recorded the view of the principal secretary of education in Karnataka: “Under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, what the government has prescribed are the nutrient levels required in a meal — the level of carbohydrates, proteins, etc. They have not prescribed the ingredients. So when we got this particular complaint, we referred it to CFTRI and NIN asking them about the advantages of onion and garlic and if we have to use them. NIN has said that APF meets the nutrition standards, so why should we cancel the contract with APF? Except for this one small reason (the refusal to use onion and garlic), there are a lot of advantages for the government to continue its contract with Iskcon. They provide hygienic meals and cater to a large group of children in the State as well as in the country. We aren’t delving into philosophical and religious issues. And we cannot punish them unnecessarily for somebody’s objections.”

Understanding a complex reality

In a fair journalistic manner, the report questioned the arguments advanced by the defenders of the scheme but never did it attempt to silence any one of them. In fact, it is the only place where we find the technical reading of the NIN: “We computed macronutrients and micronutrients from the MDM menus recommended by the Karnataka government and the MDM menus provided by APF from the published scientific data of the Institute (Indian Food Composition Table and Nutritive Value of Indian Foods). It is an accepted norm to assess the nutritional quantity and quality of food using the computational methods from the quantities of ingredients that go into making it.”

Partisanship and polarisation should not come in the way of our understanding a complex reality. A few years ago, a story dealing with the nutrient content of a noon-meal scheme meant for underprivileged children would not have drawn the ire of anyone. An ideological prism should not be used to malign a journalistic inquiry.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 1:42:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/a-debate-that-divides/article27704831.ece

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