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LPG price eats into midday meal
- Several self-help groups stop preparing food after lifting of gas subsidy

Basirhat, Oct. 3: Self-help groups have stopped preparing midday meals in over 50 primary schools having around 3,000 students in Basirhat since Monday because LPG dealers have refused to supply cooking gas at subsidised rates.

A central notification has created a non-subsidised category for hospitals and school midday meals. In the new category, schools and hospitals will have to pay around Rs 1,100 for a cylinder, against the Rs 401 they have been paying till now.

Self-help groups that cook midday meals said it would not be possible for them to continue offering the service at subsidised rates if they have to pay the full price of LPG cylinders.

“Schools have been included in the non-domestic category. Earlier, schools and hospitals were granted exemption,” an oil industry source said.

The headmaster of one of the 55-odd primary schools in North 24-Parganas’ Basirhat has requested the self-help group cooking the meal at his institution to consider using alternative fuel such as firewood.

“On October 1, LPG dealers told us they would not be able to provide us cylinders at subsidised rates any longer. If we have to buy a cylinder at Rs 1,100, we will not be able to provide the meal at Rs 3.33 per student per day. The funds that we get from the civic bodies to serve midday meals will not be enough to cover the cost,” said Anita Sikder, a self-help group co-ordinator. The schools are mostly in municipal areas.

Sources in the district primary school council said each primary school needed 10 LPG cylinders a month on average to feed its 400-odd students. So, Rs 11,000 will be needed to buy LPG cylinders a month. Each self-help group gets around Rs 30,000 a month to cook midday meals.

Bengal education minister Bratya Basu today said the state government had informed the Centre that it would not be possible for schools serving midday meals to purchase LPG cylinders at such high rates. “The Centre should see to it that schools are supplied cylinders at subsidised rates. Otherwise, the midday meal scheme will be disrupted. I have spoken to chief minister Mamata Banerjee on the issue,” Basu said on the sidelines of a programme in Calcutta.

HRD minister Kapil Sibal is expected to intervene to retain the subsidy on cylinders meant for the midday meal scheme.

Sekhar Pandit, the headmaster of one of the Basirhat schools, said: “I have requested the self-help group running the kitchen of my school to consider switching to other sources of fuel, such as firewood. I have informed the inspector of schools and the local councillor that we are not being able to supply midday meals.”

The North 24-Parganas district magistrate, Sanjay Bansal, said: “We have informed the education department about the problem.”

Several impoverished parents, who send their children to school only for the midday meal, said they would be forced to discontinue the kids’ education. “The midday meal is very important for our children. I send my daughter to school so that she at least gets one proper meal a day. Now that the school has stopped serving the meal, I am thinking of not sending her to school,” said Dilawar Khan, a cycle-van operator in Basirhat whose daughter Ruksana is a Class II student of Kholapota Primary School.

Samir Mondal, a sharecropper and father of Class II student Babul, said: “I have six members in my family and I struggle to provide a square meal a day. If my son does not get midday meal at school, I will lose the enthusiasm to send him to school.”

The chairman of the Congress-run Basirhat municipality, Krishna Majumdar, demanded that the state government “share the additional burden of providing the midday meals”.

At least one school in Murshidabad’s Behrampore said the midday meals would have to be stopped if cooking gas was not provided at the subsidised rate.

Nabyendu Sarkar, the headmaster of Sriguru Pathshala Primary School, said: “Around 100 students eat the meal daily in my school. I need three to four cylinders a month. If the government does not take immediate steps, we will have to stop serving midday meals. I have informed the district sub-inspector of schools.”

Most schools in Burdwan are unaffected because midday meals are prepared on ovens fired by coal and firewood.

An LPG dealer in Garia on the southern fringes of Calcutta said he had informed the three primary schools where he supplies cylinders at subsidised rates for the midday meal scheme that he would not be able to offer the subsidised rate any longer. “They will have to pay around Rs 1,100 for each cylinder from now,” Chandanlal Mukherjee said.