The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Centre shield for Jaya meal scheme

Chennai, Jan. 22: The ruling ADMK has cited central norms on free rice distribution to take the sting out of strident political protests against the “free meals scheme” the government launched recently.

The Opposition, echoing farmers’ concern about losing self-respect, has been insisting the government distribute 30 kg of free rice to the ryot families.

The farmers in the Cauvery delta, where the samba paddy on 800,000 acres is on the verge of withering away because of non-availability of river waters, in particular are badly hit. They, however, find it “humiliating” to line up before noon meal centres with women and children.

Official sources, however, cited central norms which clearly say “giving of rice” must be linked with a “food-for-work” programme. And unless “there is a famine” (declared officially), there can be no free rice distribution.

Chief minister Jayalalithaa, refuting the critics’ stand, said the free meal scheme’s objective was different from the food-for-work programmes as her scheme sought to ensure that affected farmers’ families did not starve. Food-for-work programmes were also on, she said.

Jayalalithaa defended the modalities of the free meal scheme and clarified: “Our foremost duty is to ensure food to farmers who have no access to food due to lack of work and not to make them beggars.”

Till Monday, nearly 9,00,000 landless and poor farmers had registered for the scheme. Of this number, 77 per cent have been eating the cooked food at various noon meal centres, Jayalalithaa said, showing the good response to the scheme.

The last date to register for the meal scheme has now been pushed to January 31, Jayalalithaa said. The objective of the scheme is to provide the “necessary calories” to the needy by “serving nutritious, well cooked and hot food”, she said.

The scheme, she said, saves the beneficiaries the trouble of buying vegetables and essential provisions. It is any day better than providing raw rice. “In a crisis situation for the farmers such as this”, serving cooked food in the right quantity is the best way to ensure access to food, Jayalalithaa said, rejecting suggestions that distributing free rice would be a better alternative.

A high-level team of officials has been visiting the districts to see how the scheme is working.

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