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School meal load on states

New Delhi, Dec. 10: The Centre has asked states to bear 25 per cent of the additional cost on purchase of non-subsidised LPG for school midday meals, a move unlikely to escape criticism.

Amarjit Singh, the additional secretary in the human resource development ministry, wrote to the principal education secretaries of states last week saying the fuel expenses are part of the overall cooking cost, which is shared in the ratio of 75 to 25 between the Centre and the states.

“The additional financial burden due to withdrawal of subsidy on LPG cylinders will have to be accordingly shared between the Centre and states,” the letter said.

Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Karnataka have already written to the ministry citing constraints in running the scheme because of the withdrawal of subsidised LPG cylinders for school meals.

The scheme was earlier treated under the non-domestic exempted category and schools supplied subsidised LPG cylinders. Now they have to buy LPG at market rates, after the petroleum ministry last month rejected a request of the HRD ministry to continue supplying subsidised cylinders for the programme.

The HRD ministry has estimated the additional burden at Rs 752 crore every year. It wrote to the finance ministry asking for the extra expenses to be met from the existing funds available under the scheme. The annual budgetary allocation for the scheme is Rs 10,000 crore.

It has now been decided that the Centre will not bear the entire burden. The states will pay Rs 188 crore and the HRD ministry Rs 564 crore. This was agreed upon at a recent meeting HRD minister M.M. Pallam Raju held on the issue with officials, who felt states should meet 25 per cent of the additional cost. They argued that if the Centre gives complete relief, it would set a bad precedent and violate the fund-sharing pattern.

However, states may oppose the decision arguing they are being penalised for the Centre’s unilateral decision to withdraw the subsidy, sources said. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has termed the decision on LPG “anti-student” and said it would affect the meal scheme.

In his letter, additional secretary Amarjit Singh has also asked states to continue the food programme without compromising the nutrition level. A meal for primary school students is meant to provide a minimum of 450 calories and 12 grams of protein. It is 700 calories and 20 grams of protein in the upper primary stage.

The scheme is seen as being successful in attracting children to school and checking the dropout rate. Nearly 10 crore children get meals each day the schools are open.

Junior HRD minister Shashi Tharoor told the Rajya Sabha last month in a written reply about the rejection of his ministry’s request for continued supply of cheap LPG for the scheme. “The ministry of petroleum has advised that the additional burden could be compensated to the ministry of HRD through budgetary provisions for the midday meal scheme.”

Senior minister Raju had sought to allay apprehensions the programme could take a hit. “We have to make sure the quality is not compromised.”