Government’s refusal to enforce MoU with Akshaya Patra is hurting the scheme

Recent reports on refusal of the ISKCON-linked NGO Akshay Patra Foundation (APF) to include onion and garlic in the food served by them as part of Mid-day meals scheme in Karnataka, have created an erroneous impression that APF is no longer required to include these ingredients. A copy of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the year 2018-19 signed between Bengaluru Zilla Panchayat (First Party) and APF (Second Party) accessed under Right To Information Act shows that APF is still legally required to include onion in the food. Clause 10 of the MoU states clearly that ‘The Second Party has no right to alter or change the menu prescribed by the First Party. (The details of menu to be supplied is at Schedule-II).’ Schedule-II of the MoU prescribes usage of onion on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as shown below.

Schedule-II.png

Hence, unless APF has started adding these ingredients in the food they have been supplying to schools after signing of the MoU, they are in violation of these contractual obligations. In fact, violation of such contractual obligations by APF is not a recent phenomenon. The MoU for year 2016-17 obtained under the Right to Information Act also bound APF legally to the provision of the same menu, but APF openly and blatantly violated them. The state government’s weak-kneed response and its reluctance in strictly enforcing these contractual requirements, has emboldened contractors like APF to impose their personal religious beliefs on eating preferences of lakhs of children in Karnataka.

It is not just that the state government has looked the other way when terms of the MoU are being violated or that a NGO can be allowed to wield so much power and influence over policy that it begins to dictate what children across public schools should be fed. But what is perhaps more significant is that these violations would and have undermined the very objectives of the scheme. And government has known this for a while.

In a review meeting of Mid-day meal scheme in Karnataka held in April 2013, the appraisal by the Programme Approval Board (PAB) noted with concern, the low coverage (see Table 1) and low utilization of foodgrains as against the norms across few districts in the state. Coverage represents the percentage of total children enrolled in the schools covered under MDM who have opted-in. Low utilization of foodgrains represents lower consumption of food when compared to the norms. One serving of meal under the scheme is required to contain 100 gms of foodgrains for children in Primary (Classes 1-V) and 150 gms in Upper Primary (Classes VI-X) schools. As against these norms, the estimated utilization was 90 gm (90%) and 135 gm (90%) in Primary and Upper Primary schools respectively i.e. those children who had opted-in, were eating less across these districts.

Table 1: Coverage under MDM for select districts during 2012-13

District Coverage (Avg Availed MDM/Total Enrolled) (%)
Primary Upper Primary
Bangalore (U) 83 86
Dharwad 91 82
Mangalore (DK) 90 93
Udupi 90 100
Vijyapura 91 89
Ramanagara 96 87
Uttara Kannada 95 88
Ballary 95 88

Source: Adapted from Karnataka Fact Sheet for AWP&B 2013-14.

Based on these dual criteria, Bangalore (Urban) and Dharwad were identified as Special Focus Districts for improvement. In Bangalore (Urban), the coverage by MDM across Primary and Upper Primary classes was 83% and 86% respectively i.e. 17% and 14% of the students enrolled in Primary and and Upper Primary classes had opted out of the scheme. Similarly, the coverage in Dharwad was 91% and 82% in Primary and and Upper Primary classes respectively.

In both districts, mid-day meals were being supplied by NGOs operating centralized kitchens, the biggest of them being APF, in terms of number of schools. After deliberations over the issue, the Department of Public Instruction wrote to all districts in Dec 2013 identifying the following reasons for the low coverage and utilization:-

“The NGOs which are involved in implementation of Mid-day Meals scheme across the state are supplying same kind of food every day to schools, using same kind of vegetables every day and instead of using food ingredients as per the local food customs, are preparing food following their own organization’s food practices and supplying it to children. Because of this, not only are children not eating the food with enjoyment but monitoring institutions have also raised objections. Not only that, during visits to schools, the opinion sought from children also supplements this.”

As a remedy, a weekly menu was drawn up which would fulfil the nutritional norms of MDM of 450 Kcal and 12 gm of protein for Classes I-V and 700 Kcal and 20 gm of protein for Classes VI-X while allowing for suitable regional variations. The menu prescribed the ingredients to be used and their respective quantity to be used, for each day of the week. The mainstay of the menu was anna sambhar (rice and sambhar) which in most households in Karnataka is prepared with onions and often garlic as ingredients. Thus the nutritional norms prescribed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development was converted into a prescribed menu, because the children, who are the intended beneficiary of the schemes, were rejecting the arbitrary menu supplied by NGOs. This requirement was legally encoded into the MoUs that NGOs were required to enter into, and slowly all the suppliers started adhering to this menu but not Akshaya Patra Foundation. Year after year, it signed legal contracts, acceding to the prescribed menu on paper while ignoring this requirement in practice. The government while in the know of these facts, chose to ignore not just these violations but the continuing complaints by students that the food supplied by Akshaya Patra Foundation was monotonous. Consequently, as the Figure below shows, the coverage across these two Special Focus districts has remained below 85% despite introduction of the menu reform in 2013-14.

Plot.png

Source: Karnataka Fact Sheet for AWP&B for several years available at http://mdm.nic.in/mdm_website/.

Figure 1: Trend of Coverage under MDM scheme in Bangalore (U) and Dharwad districts across years

In Nov 2018, the Karnataka State Food Commission, an independent body constituted under the National Food Security Act 2013, on school visits noticed that students in schools where APF was supplying food ,were consuming only about 80% of the prescribed norm because the food was not very enjoyable. The same thing of course had been discovered five years ago but as Marx would have exclaimed: ‘history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce’. And so began the farce. Everyone in the government pretended that the objective of the scheme is to deliver calories and proteins to schools whether children eat it or not. Akshaya Patra Foundation submitted a ‘cyclical’ menu for evaluation which was approved as “exceeding MHRD norms” by National Institute of Nutrition without any field evaluation. The question of what children would enjoy eating was transformed into whether some other permutation and combination of ingredients could substitute for onion and garlic. While opinions of children, who we need to remind are the real beneficiaries of the scheme, rejecting bland and monotonous food from APF remain buried in files in Zilla Panchayat offices, the Chief Secretary is poring over reports on how turmeric and drumstick can be nutritional alternatives to onion and garlic. We need to ask just one question, why can’t children in Karnataka eat sambhar with onion and garlic in their schools, the way they do at their homes?

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