The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bengal on list of meal defaulters

New Delhi, May 12: The Centre has pulled up states that are not providing cooked midday meals to students in government and government-aided schools.

In November 2001, the Supreme Court had directed all states and Union territories to implement the scheme, which is an incentive to poor parents to send their children to school.

The defaulting states include West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. An official of the human resources development ministry says Bengal has implemented the scheme only as a pilot project. Fifteen states have partially put it into effect.

“Studies have shown the midday meal scheme, started in 1995, pays rich dividends. It improves retention and attendance of students,” says a ministry official. “But what can the Centre do to make the states comply' We can only keep reminding them.”

In Rajasthan, attendance shot up in schools that implemented the scheme, particularly in the drought-prone areas. Officials said the scheme also helps in whittling down caste barriers, as upper-caste students eat with Dalit students. However, a major problem is the high dropout rate, especially after students cross the 4th standard.

According to the scheme, the Centre supplies the foodgrain and bears transportation costs. All that the local authorities in the states have to do is cook the meal and give it to the students. According to the human resources development ministry, the states are pleading insolvency. “The only cost they have to incur is that of fuel and labour,” says an official. Two years ago, it came to Re 1 per student. The states say it has risen to Rs 2 or more.

The scheme is being implemented only in Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. “We have asked the states pleading financial insolvency to co-ordinate the scheme with rural development schemes and involve the community and NGOs,” says an official.

On November 28, 2001, the Supreme Court had directed state governments to provide cooked meals instead of dry rations to the students. The court also set a deadline — February 28, 2002 — by which the states were asked to implement the scheme in all government and government-aided schools in half the districts.

The response from states, perennially guilty of non-implementation of social schemes, was as lethargic as ever. The court put the erring states on a “verbal notice” and asked the Centre to slash grants to the defaulters.

The Right to Food Campaign launched in different parts of the country by academic Jeran Dreze and human rights activist Colin Gonsalves last year triggered mass protests. In Ranchi, on July 11, 2002, hundreds of students invaded the chief minister’s residence while students in Orissa staged a demonstration in front of a school building.

“But nothing has moved them into action,” says the human resources development ministry.

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