For the sake of one free meal a day, Indian parents send their children to school

Indian foundation Akshaya Patra recently celebrated the milestone of serving 2 billion meals to schoolchildren across India.
Children enjoying their midday meals provided jointly by the Akshaya Patra Foundation and the Indian government. For a lot of poor children in India, this is their only meal for the day. Photo courtesy the Akshaya Patra Foundation
Children enjoying their midday meals provided jointly by the Akshaya Patra Foundation and the Indian government. For a lot of poor children in India, this is their only meal for the day. Photo courtesy the Akshaya Patra Foundation

BANGALORE // At a primary school in Bangalore, dozens of young children patiently queue up outdoors for their hot lunch — a plate of sambar and rice.

While many more privileged children across the world traditionally hate school dinners, for these children the provision of a free hot lunch every day under the Indian government’s midday meal scheme is a factor that encourages their parents to send them to school. Otherwise, teachers say, many of them could end up giving up on education and working to make ends meet.

The government-run Malleswaram school is a simple property with sparse facilities.

The children, who are aged between 8 and 12, are from impoverished families. Many of their parents work as construction labourers or housemaids in this city known for being the information technology hub of India.

“I want to be doctor,” said eight-year-old Chikbeerama R, as she hungrily ate her meal with her hands, sitting on the floor. Chikbeerama’s father is a labourer on a building site and her mother is a maid.

The government’s midday meal scheme was launched in 2003 in an effort to combat widespread poverty, hunger and malnutrition in India.

It faces challenges – perhaps not surprising for a programme that in the last financial year cost the government 90 billion rupees (Dh4.9bn) – but it reaches more than 120 million children at government schools in India.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, based in Bangalore, is a non-profit organisation that is the single largest body providing school meals as part of the scheme, feeding 1.6 million children across India, including the children at the Malleswaram school.

On Saturday, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee attended an event in Bangalore to commemorate Akshaya Patra having reached a milestone of serving 2 billion meals to schoolchildren across India. The foundation started out in 2000 by serving 1,500 meals a day across five schools, but scaled up its operations with the launch of the government scheme in 2003.

Mr Mukherjee praised Akshaya Patra for its efforts and commitment to the programme.

“The first and foremost responsibility upon us is to make this country free from hunger, illiteracy, disease and destitution,” Mr Mukherjee said. “If we want to take advantage of the demographic dividend [of a young population], we must educate our workforce.”

Madhu Pandit Dasa, the chairman of Akshaya Patra, said that parents push their children to go to school because of the government’s free meals programme.

Otherwise, he said, “these kids would be used for labour”. Child labour is a huge problem in India, and for some of the children, this is their only meal of the day, he said.

More than 2.8 million children aged between six and 13 years old – the age when education is compulsory in India – do not go to school, according to the Unesco Institute of Statistics.

“Education of one person and getting good employment takes the entire family out of the cycle of poverty,” Mr Dasa said.

“When our kids are fed and educated, they turn into adults who are an asset to the nation.”

The government scheme provides 60 per cent of the funding that the foundation spends on feeding schoolchildren, while the remainder comes from corporate and individual donors.

On average, each meal costs Akshaya Patra 10 Indian rupees (Dh0.55) to produce. The foundation has scaled up its operations over the years, and with its high-tech kitchens and an extensive delivery network, it now serves children in more than 13,000 schools across 11 states in India, including some rural areas.

It has set itself an ambitious target of feeding 5 million children by 2020, and implements strict hygiene standards in all its kitchens.

But despite these successes, the government midday meal scheme has had its controversies too.

The scheme is rife with corruption, and the way the meals are provided across the country – through various NGOs and other local groups – is fragmented.

Many of the meals are cooked within the schools, with no hygiene standards put in place. In some cases, they are provided by unscrupulous organisations that pocket some of the cash provided by the authorities, Mr Dasa said.

In 2013, at least 23 children from a primary school in the north Indian state of Bihar died and many more fell ill after eating a meal contaminated with pesticides that was cooked at the school.

More recently, in June, 96 children at a school in Jharkhand in east India fell sick and had to be taken to hospital after eating a lunch prepared within a school as part of the midday meal scheme. A dead lizard was later found in the food.

The programme has other flaws too.

“I was involved in procuring vegetables, gas, organising cooks,” said Mahalakshmi Vardhiya, a teacher who worked in schools in rural areas outside of Bangalore that produced the free school meals in-house. “My work would be more about getting things together to cook, rather than my role as a headmistress.”

“I think [the government] should rope in more and more NGOs who have a heart to do this programme and then the quality will go up,” said Mr Dasa.

With scepticism often surrounding the work of NGOs in India, he explained that the organisation has had to work hard to build up trust.

The foundation is financially audited by KPMG to provide transparency to its donors, Mr Dasa said.

Transporting food to schools scattered across remote areas of India is one of the biggest challenges his organisation faces.

“In areas we cannot really reach in our vehicles, we hire a village house which is turned into a kitchen and employ the womenfolk there. Weekly provisions are delivered, and we have put standards of cleanliness,” said Mr Dasa.

“The women are very happy to get employment in that remote place, and they not only cook, they carry and deliver the food to the schools.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: August 28, 2016 04:00 AM

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