Midday meals not only promote enrolment in educational institutions but also encourage equality by mandating that children sit together and eat regardless of caste.
When I first read the news about the government’s decision to link the Aadhaar card with the midday meal scheme, I was shocked and despondent. This sorrow cropped up not only because I am an activist but also because I thrived/grew up having midday meals during my school and balwadi days. Thus, I am compelled to share my experience of the midday meal scheme and its importance in the lives of millions like me.
I come from a working-class family in Alandur, Chennai. My father was a private factory worker while my mother was a clerk in a government school. Since my mother travelled to the outskirts of Chennai for work, she had to leave by 6 am, like several other working women in my neighbourhood. I make this point only to highlight the fact that like me and my siblings, various other children in the vicinity would share our experience since the characteristics of our families were similar. The midday meals mattered to each one of us, encouraging us to walk miles to the classroom with limitless hope in our eyes.
I studied in a government higher secondary school along with many students who came from faraway places. Like me, most of them belonged to the socially and economically deprived sections of society. We shared a common identity that helped us get distracted in a world of inequality, while we were together bonding over a stretch of seven to eight hours. In my school, the midday meals were accessible only till class VIII. However, many students who studied in classes IX to XII continued to avail midday meals. The teacher in charge of the scheme always maintained that food must never be denied to any of her pupils no matter what standard they were in.
Like me, most other students in my school were first generation learners. First introduced by the Kamaraj government in Tamil Nadu, the midday meal scheme’s sole purpose was to encourage students to enrol in educational institutions. Later, the M.G.Ramachandran government introduced eggs in the meals to ensure proper nutrition for school-going children. The most important thing that I experienced in school through the midday meals is something that others would agree with – irrespective of caste differences, we would have to compulsorily sit and eat in common places. The term ‘equality’ was practiced in the real sense of the term through the implementation of the midday meal scheme in the government schools in Chennai.
A country like India, which continues to deprive its citizen of the basic facilities of health, proper schools, convenient roads and electricity, cannot confidently boast of linking Aadhaar cards to the midday meal scheme. There are lakhs of students who belong to rural and semi-urban areas, and who travel a couple of kilometres to study in government schools. They represent many of my classmates who couldn’t go back home and eat or get packed food for lunch, which is the case for many in the urban areas. This is not just my experience, but that of all those who studied in government schools and availed the midday meals provided.
The issue of midday meals directly affects our future generations. Therefore, it is important for all of us to stand together and oppose the government’s draconian decision to link the meals to Aadhaar. I was disappointed and shocked by the manner in which the media and political parties stayed away from the whole debate when food is the basic right for every child in the country. Such a cruel and inhuman act of snatching away food from millions of hungry mouths is illegal as well, as the Supreme Court has stated that Aadhaar cards cannot be made mandatory.
While advocating for the scheme, I agree that there are several problems that are to be worked upon, like hygiene and quality of food served. But these problems don’t change the fact that the decision of making Aadhaar compulsory for the midday meal scheme is destructive in character. I conclude this article by quoting Muthukrishanan, another first-generation scholar from JNU who is no longer with us. Like me, he too studied in a government school and had midday meals during his schools days. Three days before he died, he wrote, “when equality is denied, everything is denied”.
The government must remember that there are millions of children who walk barefoot every day holding government-sponsored textbooks, wide-eyed with distant dreams of being fed and silently aspiring for a better future.
V. Lenin Kumar holds a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University.