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No school, no mid-day meals or ration; COVID-19 deals double blow to kids in Karnataka

BENGALURU: A week after the Yediyurappa regime suspended the learning programme Vidyagama for government school children, it turns out that their families have not been getting their monthly quota of food grains either, promised in lieu of mid day meals.

A dangerous cocktail of poor children being out of schools, denied mid-day meals and lacking access to online education is playing out in rural Karnataka as well as low-income pockets of urban areas. This has worried sections of education administrators and child right activists, but any feeble attempts at reviving classes in low-risk Covid-19 areas have been met with stiff resistance, officials said, not willing to be identified.

The mid-day meal programme fed about 56 lakh children in government and aided schools everyday, but the meals were gone with the lockdown the government enforced in March end to control the spread of the pandemic. The government distributed dry ration kits at the rate of 3 kg rice and 1 kg dal per kid to families of school children in April and May to compensate for hot-meals. But this came to be stopped from June, without a notice to families, after the Finance department raised queries, wondering where was the need for additional food grains when the families had already been covered under the public distribution system programme. By stopping these kits, they could save some money for coffers.

When contacted, Primary & Secondary Education Minister S Suresh Kumar told ET that the education department will restore supplies if the financial position allows it. The government, he said, is talking to the Karnataka Cooperative Milk Federation (KMF) to provide milk powder to school children. “Milk powder will be given at the doorsteps of children soon,” the minister said.

But the fact that school going children have been denied quality and nutritious food for seven months now, and uncertainties over when classes will resume have the concerns about potential health risks. For tens of thousands of children from low-income families, hot milk and meals under the school feeding programme had been the only source of nutritious food. The mid-day meal scheme has played a big role in addressing hunger and boosting attendance in schools.

“Dry ration cannot be a substitute for hot cooked food. The first thing that the government must do in the interest of children is to open the government schools and resume mid-day meals,” National Law School of India University faculty member Niranjan Aradhya said. A child rights activist, Aradhya cited an example of Odisha increasing the foodgrain quantity as a supplement to mid-day meal. “But in Karnataka, there have been instances where families of the children got only the rice.”

With poverty levels rising, poor families will increasingly push boys to do farm jobs or other forms of labour, and marry off underage girls because the government has blocked all kinds of academic activities for these children, Aradhya said.

Child Rights Trust director Nagasimha Rao said it was important for children to have access to nutritious food to build immunity against the coronavirus infection. “They are deprived of milk, food, egg and all such essentials. The government should at least start supplying vitamin capsules and protein biscuits as prescribed by UNICEF.”

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