Press Note: Opposition to Handing Over of School-based kitchens to Centralized Kitchens run by NGOs (17/12/19)

Karnataka has a high rate of malnutrition and this has been a cause for serious concern for the last several years leading to a multiple Public Interest Litigations in the Karnataka High Court. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey carried out during June-Sept 2018 shows that in Karnataka, stunting among 5-9 years old children is 21.5% and thinness (Body mass index <-2 Standard deviation) in children in 10 – 19 age group is 26.5%. 9% adolescent boys and 26% adolescent girls are anemic. Over 94% of the children studying in government run and government aided schools in Karnataka belong to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and they are more at risk of all these nutritional deficiencies. In this context, the mid day meal scheme (Akshara Dasoha) becomes an important means of addressing the alarming levels of malnutrition in the State.

Background

In Karnataka the Mid-day meal scheme began in 2002-03 and was extended to all government-run and government-aided schools (Class I-X) over the last 16 years. In 2013-14, Karnataka government started providing one glass of hot milk (150 ml) to children under the Ksheera Bhagya scheme. The National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA) passed by the Parliament gives legal entitlement to every child to a hot nutritious freshly cooked meal at government schools. As per Section 5 (2) of the Act, these meals are to be cooked at school-level kitchens. An exception has been provided for only those schools in urban areas where there is an absence of adequate space. Only in such schools, food can be supplied by centralized kitchens run by NGOs. But in the last few years, the state government has been violating these norms by handing over the supply of food to centralized kitchens run by NGOs. In Bengaluru district, for example, 95% of the schools have been handed over to NGOs even when several of these schools have existing kitchen facilities. And now the government is planning to hand over school-based kitchens in rural areas also to NGOs even when it is not allowed under the NFSA Act 2013. For example, a proposal is under consideration to hand over 50 schools in Anekal to just one NGO, Akshaya Patra Foundation.

We place our outright rejection of this move based on the following reasons:-

  1. The State food commission, several government bodies and rights activists have repeatedly highlighted that the consumption of food supplied by the NGOs through centralized kitchen is lower than the food cooked at school-based kitchens. A fact finding team found consumption of food in schools provided by NGOs to be as low as 60-80% of the required amount due to poor quality of rice and bland taste and culturally inappropriateness of the food supplied by NGOs. To save on multiple trips to school, NGOs combine delivery of milk (Ksheera Bhagya scheme) and food (Akshara Dasoha (MDM) scheme). Therefore, either the milk is delivered too late or food is delivered too early. Because of the long time gap between preparation of food (3 -4 am) and its consumption (12:30-1:00 pm), the food quality and its taste deteriorates, children very rarely go back for second helpings and are consuming less, leading to excessive wastage of food. Even school teachers do not eat food that is provided by NGOs.

  1. On the other hand, food prepared in school-based kitchens, is fresh, more palatable, and culturally similar to what children are used to eating in their homes, which naturally ensures that children consume more. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), in their Performance Evaluation Report of the Mid-day Meal Scheme (2015), pointed out that ISKCON was using less rice than prescribed norms thereby affecting the nutritional entitlements of children. The Parliamentary Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in their Report titled “Prevention of Untouchability in Mid-day meal scheme in Government run schools” (2013) also stated that it is desirable that the food is cooked locally in the school premises either through self-help groups or through personnel engaged by the School Management Committee.

  2. The government is systematically destroying school-based kitchens by depriving them of adequate funding. The government provides Rs 4.35 and Rs 6.51 per meal for children of primary and upper primary classes respectively which are highly inadequate. When there are less number of children in the school, payment on a per child basis is insufficient to meet the costs of preparation of food. The CAG Report cited above also found that in Karnataka, there were long delays in release of funds at various levels. This leads to poor morale in teachers and headmasters who then opt for centralised kitchens. The honorarium for the cooks and helpers is just Rs 2700 per month and even these payments are irregular. Instead of supporting the school-based kitchens through better working conditions for the cooks, the handing over of school-based kitchens to NGOs would snatch away livelihoods of lakhs of women.

  3. NGOs are also spreading false propaganda, organizing visits to their kitchens and openly lobbying with MLAs, MPs, corporators, Block Education officers, Akshara Dasoha supervisors, Zilla panchayat officials, SDMC members, principals, teachers and parents to hand over school based kitchens to the NGOs.

State favouring certain NGOs over school based kitchens

In 2013, because of lower consumption of food supplied by NGOs, the state government had prescribed a standard menu which mandated the inclusion of onion and garlic which are traditionally used for cooking in Karnataka. The NGO Akshaya Patra Foundation (ISKCON) has consistently violated their MoU with the State government as well as the Guidelines of the MDM scheme which expressly prohibit propagation of any religious practice. Importantly, a study by Mysuru-based Central Food Technological Research Institute, shows that the use of onion and garlic in food increases the absorption of iron and zinc, providing an additional scientific reason for inclusion of these ingredients in cooking, apart from enhancing taste. Why are scientific evidence and community preference being overridden by the state government in favour of one NGOs’ religious sentiments?

Akshaya Patra (ISKCON) has also been collecting donations in cash and kind in the name of the mid-day meal scheme. The CAG report highlighted that huge donations were being collected by ISKCON in the name of the mid day meal scheme and that this was inappropriate as the scheme was entirely funded by Centre/State funds. The Committee for the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in their Report on “Prevention of Untouchability in Mid-day Meal Schemes in Government run Schools” (2013) had also objected to the ‘unauthorised and illegal collection of donations/ contribution by ISKCON and Akshaya Patra from public in India and abroad for Government sponsored Mid Day Meal Scheme for school children in Karnataka’. It would seem like the government is less interested in the nutritional needs of the children of the state and more interested in enabling financial gain for one or two contractors.

Keeping these facts in mind, in the interest of the children studying in government schools, we demand following urgent interventions from the government:-

  1. An enquiry committee should be set up to look into the reasons for request from schools to handover existing school based kitchens to NGOs. If the issue is due to delay in release of budget, harassment of teachers/principals, low payments to cooks, then this should be immediately rectified and action should be taken against officials obstructing the functioning of school-based kitchens. If any NGO is found to be lobbying for contracts, action should be initiated against them.

  2. The state government should take immediate steps to provide eggs along with milk, fruits and vegetables since 95% of the children studying in government and government aided schools in Karnataka come from SC, ST and OBC communities who enjoy eating eggs and will benefit nutritionally. Children who do not consume eggs can be given an additional glass of milk or a fruit.

  3. No existing school-based kitchens in rural areas should be closed down and handed over to NGOs as it violates the National Food Security Act 2013. Additionally, in those schools in rural areas which receive food from NGOs, school-based kitchens should be restarted immediately in compliance with Sec 5(2) of the NFSA Act. In urban areas, all schools which have adequate space for building kitchens or already have kitchens should be converted to school-based kitchens.

  4. All schools should have a minimum budget to ensure adequate functioning of the school-based kitchens irrespective of the number of children. Additional budget should then be calculated on a per child basis. The fund allocation for every meal should be at least Rs 20 as in the case of food provided in hostels run by Social Welfare Department. The cooks and helpers should be paid remuneration as per the minimum wage norms.

  5. No NGO should be allowed to violate the menu prescribed by the State government. The menu should be based on scientific nutritional guidelines and local taste preferences rather than religious practices of the NGO. Any NGO violating these clauses should have their contract canceled.

Press Coverage

  1. NGO opposes more mid-day meals duties to Akshaya Patra‘, Deccan Herald, 18/12/2019.

  2. Centralised kitchens run by NGOs opposed‘, TheHindu, 18/12/2019.

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