Kulsum Khatun and husband, a rickshaw puller, are residents of Jagdamba camp in Sheikh Sarai. Over the last few months of lockdown in the capital, none of them were able to find any work. “My two daughters, aged 7 and 9, study in a government school in Malviya Nagar (South Delhi),” said Kusum, “Mid-day meals were very important for us since we hardly make enough to feed them twice a day. Now, even that has stopped. We received around Rs 95 in March but nothing since then.”
On March 23rd, seven days after the COVID crisis forced closure of all schools in Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that the government would home-deliver packets of cooked meals to students. Not surprisingly, with no details available on how this would be done, Kejriwal was forced to admit within weeks that the scheme was a non-starter.
Then the Delhi government said it was exploring the possibility of transferring money to the parents’ accounts. But four months into the pandemic, even that has been a non-starter, the excuse being that the Centre has not transferred the required money.
On March 20th, the Centre had directed states to provide either cooked meals or food allowance to students till schools reopen. But no student has received the allowance since April. Neither has any alternative arrangement been made to enable these children to get their mid-day meals.
Kulsum’s is just one of many poor families who are dependent on the school meals to feed their children at least once a day. Kamlesh Devi from Jahangirpuri, said her 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, study in a municipal school but have not received any food allowance in this academic session (since April).
“They would get chana, puri and halwa in the meals,” said Kamlesh.“Ever since the lockdown, my kids could not get any of these items. My husband is a mason. We can only afford chapatis once a day. In other meals, we generally have tea and biscuits.”
NEP recommends breakfast too!
Even as the allowance for a single meal remains unpaid, the government announced the National Education Policy (NEP), which proposes to bring in provisions for serving breakfast to elementary school students, apart from the midday meals.
“Research shows that the morning hours after a nutritious breakfast can be particularly productive for the study of cognitively more demanding subjects and hence these hours may be leveraged by providing a simple but energizing breakfast in addition to mid-day meals,” reads the NEP.
Lost between Centre and state
Mid-day meals in school were launched with the aim to provide food security to children from economically weaker families and increase enrolment in public schools, and are channelled through state governments.
Delhi has one of the highest undernutrition rates of children in urban areas—-a staggering 11.7% of its children are severely stunted. Last year, three young children died of starvation, of which two children didn’t have access to Anganwadi Centres (AWC). Yet, even after other such incidents came to light, there seems to be no indication of a much-needed overhaul of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to cope with the situation post COVID.
The central government, which only plays a supervisory role, with the states being responsible for implementation of the mid-day meal scheme, has said it is monitoring the situation and is getting regular updates from states.
The Centre recently informed the Delhi High Court that it has released over Rs 27 crore to the AAP government as recurring central assistance under the mid-day meal (MDM) scheme for the financial year 2020-21.
The submissions were made in response to the court’s query on June 30th as to when the Centre had transferred the money for mid-day meal, for which months and when the Delhi government received these funds. The bench noted that despite its order of June 30th, no replies have been filed and gave the Centre and Delhi government a “last chance” to file their affidavits and has listed the matter for hearing on August 7th.
The court was hearing a PIL by NGO Mahila Ekta Manch which has sought directions to the Delhi government to provide cooked midday meals or food security allowances to eligible children.
“We have held discussions with the people concerned including the Minister for Women and Child Development Rajendra Pal Gautam,” said Arvind Singh of Matri Sudha, a NGO working in the field of malnutrition.“We have also written to the Delhi Government to release the funds or make some arrangements to provide food to these children as no allowances have been paid to the parents of the children since April and many families are dependent on these meals”.
The last disbursement into accounts of students of Delhi government and municipal schools was in March, the amounts ranging from Rs 78 to Rs 95.
“The entire cash transfer exercise has been haphazard with no transparency in the functioning of this scheme,” said Amrita Johri of the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan. “The Delhi government has not even informed the beneficiaries of the scheme.”
Readymade excuse: The coronavirus
Admitting that there has been a delay in transfer of funds, Yogesh Pratap, Deputy Director at the Directorate of Education (DoE) of the Delhi government, said this was due to the preoccupation with containing the virus.
“But the government has started the process of transferring the allowance,” added Yogesh Pratap.“First, we will cover lower primary classes (nursery to fifth) and transfer Rs 360 for April, May and June. Then we will start the process for upper primary classes (sixth to eighth) and transfer Rs 480 for three months.”
Figures given by the HRD Ministry say foodgrains released for Delhi for the Midday Meal Scheme for the second quarter of 2020-21 from July 1 2020 to September 30 2020, is 2166.60 tonnes of wheat and rice for primary stage.
According to available official figures on the revised funding for this scheme since June 24, 2019, the ratio is 60:40 for state and Centre, with the Centre funding Rs 2.69 per meal for primary students and Rs 4.03 per meal for upper primary students. These amounts are fixed based on the nutritional value of food served to the children.
Available figures of nutritional intake fixed since December 1, 2009 For primary children: Foodgrains 100 gms, pulses 20 gms, vegetables (including leafy ones) 50 gms, oil and fat 5 gms with salt and condiments as per need. For upper primary children: foodgrains 150 gms, pulses 30 gms, vegetables (leafy) 75 gms, oil and fat 7.5 gms with salt and condiments as per need.
Officials at the south and north municipal corporations, who must ensure that the funds reach the intended beneficiaries, said they are yet to receive funds from the state government. “We have not received funds from the Delhi government since April for the food allowance,” said Ira Sehgal, spokesperson for the north Delhi corporation.
The South Delhi Municipal Corporation too said they had not received funds from the state government and so have been unable to compensate the children who have missed out the midday meals due to the pandemic.
But Binay Bhushan of the Department of Education of Delhi Government insisted that “the department has been regularly transferring money to the civic bodies. They have enough money to transfer food allowance to students.”
Arun Kumar, spokesperson for the east civic body, said: “We are processing the allowance for April which will be transferred by the end of this month.”
Waiting for supplementary nutrition packages
“The delay in providing nutritious food to children can aggravate problems of malnutrition,”said Ranjana Prasad, member of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR). “We had, last month, written to the government to take this issue on priority and resume the mid-day meal scheme”.
The women and child development department of the Delhi government has said it will begin doorstep delivery service of supplementary nutrition food (SNF) to five lakh women and children through over 10,000 Anganwadi centres.
“The distribution will be done on fixed weekdays every fortnight and the existing system of giving THR (Take Home Ration) entitlement of 13 days for every fortnight will continue,” said Delhi Women and Child Development Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam.
As part of the SNF package, wheat dalia plain (1,300 gm), black chana raw (260 gm), jaggery (130 gm) and roasted black gram (130 gm) are given for children, while pregnant and lactating women receive wheat dalia plain (1,690 gm), black chana raw (260 gm), jaggery (130 gm) and roasted black gram (130 gm).
“All Child Development Project Officers (CDPOs) are instructed to ensure that SNF in the proper packages are received at Anganwadi centres in advance as per the fixed schedule,” said Gautam. “All district officers and CDPOs shall submit the required certificate regarding checking of stock of a requisite number of the centres one day prior to distribution as per the fixed schedule”.
In Delhi, one of the major problems is that anganwadi workers and helpers have to find space to set up their centres and with a maximum limit of Rs 3,000 per month for rent, finding a suitable clean, safe and affordable space is a major challenge.
Mahbooba Hussain has let out her small room on rent to the Kabir Basti AWC, though she needs the room for her own family’s needs. “My old mother-in-law cannot access the staircase to reach the room upstairs so she usually sleeps here, and hence it has to be emptied very soon when she goes out for a walk when the AWC opens,” Mahbooba said.
The anganwadi workers are indeed doing their best. But without active and immediate government help, which is far from forthcoming, they can do only so much for the hungry children and their families.