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Karnataka: NGO Akshay Patra "not sensitive" to nutrition demands of school children

Counterview Desk
Well-known civil rights organizations, Right to Food Campaign and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, have sent a letter to the Union minister of human resource development, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, other concerned ministers and officials of the state expressing concerns regarding the mid-day meal (MDM) to school children, insisting, all contracts to the Akshay Patra for supply of MDM should be immediately terminated.
Demanding that eggs should be supplied in all schools and to given to the children of those communities that are accustomed to eating them, the letter, signed by 145 citizens from across the country, says that and MDM should be prepared through self-help groups (SHGs) and other community-based organizations (CBOs) in accordance with nutritional norms and cultural practices, using fresh local products.

Text of the letter:

Religious diktats cannot supersede the application of established principles of the right to food to mid-day meal schemes.
The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meal (MDM) to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign the memorandum for 2018-19. The State government has directed the NGO to include onion and garlic in the food, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission, which the NGO is refusing to comply with. The NGO has also not been providing eggs in the MDM as part of its ‘satvik’ diet. However, this point has not yet been raised by the government.
This standoff highlights the position of rights-based campaigns that MDM should be locally prepared and culturally relevant and not provided through a centralised agency, especially one that applies limits to the food on the basis of religious belief.
The National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (MDM Scheme), launched in August 1995 to boost universalisation of primary education, while impacting on the nutrition levels of children, simultaneously lays emphasis on providing cooked meals with minimum 450 calories, 8-12 grams of proteins and adequate quantities of other nutrients, further converted by the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 into a legal right up to Class 8.
The interim order of the Supreme Court dated April 20, 2004 further mandates that “In appointment of cooks and helpers, preference shall be given to Dalits, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” According to MDM guidelines ‘meals should be made varied, interesting and wholesome as no single vegetable, fruit or grain contains all the essential nutrients, to ‘ensure that children eat well throughout the week.’ -- this in consultation with the local community, school management committees, women’s self help groups and nutrition experts.
The National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS) data for Karnataka (2015) shows that stunting among Scheduled caste (SC) and Scheduled tribe (ST) children is 39%, wasting is 40% and undernutrition is 28 and 25% respectively. . It is evident that children from marginalised communities suffer from lack of basic nutrition. The focus of the State government should be to ensure that children get both adequate quality and quantity of food.
A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India submitted to the Ministry of Human Resource Development on the MDM scheme in 2015 found that 187 test samples of meals prepared by ISCKON failed to meet prescribed standards. Out of 24 schools where cooked MDM was being supplied by ISKCON, there was a negative feedback from 75% of children and teachers.
The agency had also utilised less quantity of food grains than the prescribed scale of 100/150 gms for preparing one meal and lifted only 21,511 quintals of rice against the prescribed requirement of 68,561 which means only around 40 gms of rice was being consumed or children were eating much less than they should ideally be for their age. It is common knowledge that a tasty meal ensures that children eat better and taste is very much dependent on what a child is culturally and socially accustomed to.
The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) recommends consumption of at least 3 eggs per week in view of several nutritional advantages and that animal proteins are of high quality as they provide all the essential amino acids in the right proportion. There have been demands for eggs in the mid-day meal from civil society, parents and children in several states of India. In Andhra, in spite of the NIN making eggs mandatory in the MDM scheme, this was openly flouted by the NGO.
The 2017 revised guidelines for engagement of civil society organisations/NGO in MDM states that ‘operation of centralised kitchen should be entrusted to CSO/NGO with local presence and familiarity with the needs and culture of the State’.It says that the CSO/NGO should give commitment to abide by the MDM guidelines issued by MHRD, willing to work with Panchayat Raj Institutions and municipal bodies in accordance with relevant guidelines of the State government and ‘should not discriminate in any manner on the basis of religion, caste and creed and should not use the program for propagation of any religious practice’.
It is evident that Akshaya patra which claims to supply MDM to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India has flouted these norms from the beginning of the contract. It fails to cater to children who belong to disadvantaged communities, almost 100% of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in their foods.
In Mangalore in Karnataka there have been protests by workers who claim that Akshaya Patra is a religious organisation that is forcing students to consume food without garlic and onion while also leading to loss of jobs for local women who work in the schools to prepare the MDM. IN Chandigarh, the food, prepared without onions and garlic, by Iskcon was found unsuitable and the contract was not given to the agency.
The Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes, 2013 on prevention of untouchability in mid-day meal schemes in Government run schools has stated that it is desirable that the MDM is cooked locally in the school premises either through self-help groups or through personnel engaged by the School Management Committee.
The committee has, as early as in 2013, raised concerns about ‘unauthorised and illegal collection of donations/ contribution by ISKCON and Akshaya Patra from public in India and abroad for Government sponsored MDM Scheme for school children in Karnataka’.
The primary objectives of the MDM is to improve the nutritional status of children and to encourage children belonging to disadvantaged sections to attend school more regularly and help them concentrate on classroom activities. The State government is well within its rights to modify or terminate an agreement with a private provider at any time during the contract period by giving a 30 day notice. 
The Government of Karnataka, as well as other states should learn a lesson from this situation that MDM are best prepared locally keeping the needs of the community in mind rather than being dictated to by a religious organisation that meets neither the needs of quantity nor of quality.
We demand that all contracts to Akshay Patra for supply of MDM be immediately terminated, eggs be supplied in all schools to the children of communities that are accustomed to eating them and MDM be prepared through SHGs and other CBOs in accordance with nutritional norms and cultural practices, using fresh local products.
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Click HERE for list of signatories

Comments

Anonymous said…
What a cause ? This is clearly prejudiced and biased against Akshaya Patra which is doing such a good job. The people behind this unnecessary issue are agitated over their inability to convert the poor people in the name of free food. Same in Chandigarh as well. ISKON is being removed so that the conversion mafia can run their business of harvesting souls and get more funds.

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