A recent article by The Hindu has triggered a debate over the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF). Specifically their contribution to Karnataka’s midday meal (MDM) scheme. Animated and sentimental opinions have been making the rounds on social media. The discussion appears to have regressed into a conflict of ideologies and stories rather than an examination of facts based on concrete and applicable proof.
In the article which exposed Akshaya Patra, the journalist mentions that several school children complained of the food being bland. After close examination, the report said that the food was bland as there was no onion and garlic in it, which should not have been the case as these ingredients are a part of the state government menu.
How the Scheme Evolved:
The scheme originated in the early 1920s, when the then Madras Municipal Corporation in the Madras Presidency introduced the program for disadvantaged children. The scheme became a major policy initiative in the post-Independence period under Tamil Nadu chief minister�s K Kamaraj and MG Ramachandran.
By 1995 the central government further adopted the idea to encourage children to attend school, fight malnutrition and reduce dropout rates. In 2001, the Supreme Court passed an order in the Right to Food case, mandating that the scheme be extended to all government schools across India.
Akshaya Patra: Backed by the Government
It is also disconcerting to see that in a secular country, an organization in partnership with the government is being allowed to dictate the menu according to the beliefs of its own promoters. It is certainly not that Akshaya Patra is shelling money out of its own pockets to provide these meals.
According to a report in Business Today, the organization�s annual report showed that 52% of its funding, about Rs 205 crore, came from 10 state governments, Rs 170 crore from donations and around Rs 15 crore from interest income. . Therefore, this issue of specific beliefs dictating terms for a government-run scheme seems to be a grey area1.
Religion vs Nutrition:
According to the nutritional norms of the Union Human Resource Development Ministry (MHRD), a primary school child is to be served 450 calories in each meal which includes 12 grams of protein, 100 grams of food grains, 20 grams of pulses, 50 grams of vegetables, 5 grams of oil and fat, and salt and condiments, as needed.
For upper primary school students, the intake is supposed to be 700 calories � 20 grams of protein, 150 grams of food grains, 30 grams of pulses, 75 grams of vegetables, 7.5 grams of oil and fat, and salt and condiments, as needed.
The ministry does not specify what items are to be provided to children, as states have a diverse range of meals to meet the nutritional norms. Although in the case of Karnataka, the government has asked its vendors to use onion and garlic to enrich the overall content of the food.
To this, officials of Akshaya Patra said that they understand that garlic helps absorb iron and zinc, but then they cover it by using its alternatives like Turmeric and green leafy vegetables
Food habits are a contentious issue in India given their association with religious identities. There was a controversy with respect to this even when there was a provision being made for eggs. In a secular country, if a state starts to operate according to religion then it is incorrect, which seems to be the case in Karnataka at present. However, it will be a challenge to resolve this issue as the state is challenging a private entity, not a state organization.
Interestingly, the guidelines issued by the MHRD categorically state that organizations �should not use the [midday meal] program for the propagation of any religious practice�. APF can defend itself by stating that it is following its own organisational principles and not propagating them. Given that propagation means actively convincing people to follow particular beliefs, which it doesn�t seem to be doing.
A solution to this problem seems to be a compromise. There have been instances where certain compromises have been reached. In November 2018, the Odisha government insisted that APF include eggs in their meals, which they refused to do. However, APF arranged for an alternate supply of eggs using the state funds allocated for this purpose, denting allegations of propagating/enforcing their beliefs. If the state government is willing, such an arrangement can likely be replicated in Karnataka to increase the nutritive value of the students� meals.
However, even if this model was replicated in Karnataka, issues with onion and garlic would remain, creating a Catch-22 situation. A secular state cannot force a private organization to act against its beliefs, and in fact must ensure the equal treatment of all religions. Presently, while the Karnataka State Government looks the other way, Akshaya Patra�s culinary practices, related to legacies of purity and caste, are unwittingly being applied to millions of children.