Despite it being 6 months since the first national lockdown, the Uttar Pradesh government headed by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is yet to provide food under the Mid-Day Meal scheme to all the 1.8 crore eligible children of the state. Replying to an RTI filed by this author on behalf of The Logical Indian, the state's Mid-Day Meal Authority has said that the UP government, via an order dated 29 May 2020, had decided to provide food grains and cover cooking expenses as part of the food security allowance (FSA) to all the children from March 24 to June 30 in replacement of cooked food served at schools.
For a total of 76 days, excluding Sundays and state holidays, the state is to provide food grains at 100 gms/day to primary school students (total 7.6 kgs) and at 150 gms/day to upper primary school students (total 11.4 kgs). Similarly, money towards cooking expenses is Rs. 374 for primary school students and Rs. 561 for upper primary school students for the same duration.
In spite of the existing high rates of hunger and malnourishment in the state, the UP government was rather slow to act, with the order to provide the food security allowance (FSA) being passed only on May 29, 2020. An early direction by the Centre was given on March 20, asking all states and UTs to either provide cooked meals or allowance to all children so that no child goes hungry during the lockdown. However, as evident, the Yogi government proceeded leisurely and took over 2 months before ultimately passing an order in this regard. At present, it is unclear how many children have received their FSA and how many have not. Additionally, this author had sent an email to the UP government asking them for their comments. The story will be updated if and when they respond.
The RTI goes on to reveal that the state is yet to pass an order to provide FSA for the period following June 30 i.e. for July, August and September. This could be because the process for the period prior to July is still incomplete. Funds do not seem to be a hurdle here since 680 crores for the Mid-Day Meal scheme remain unspent in the state coffer.
The failure to promptly provide children with FSA when required the most has only worsened the problems. Due to the immense number of job losses during the pandemic, many families, especially those with multiple children have struggled to provide them with two square meals a day. As per the response given to the RTI, the process to deposit money towards cooking expenses is still on-going. This means, even after 6 months, many children have not yet received their share of money and food grains. In such a situation, will the state compensate these children for their hunger during the initial months of the pandemic? Highly unlikely. Could it not have provided allowances when they were required most? Why is it taking so long for the state to complete the process for the period of March-June? And what about the period thereafter? Will children be required to wait another 6 months before receiving their fair share? Only the State has these answers.
The Hunger crisis is a weighty concern not only in India but around the world. In 2019, India slipped from the 83 rank out of 113 countries in 2000, to 103 amongst 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index. The pandemic only worsened this adversity. India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Home Minister, Amit Shah, had recently launched a campaign declaring the month of September as "POSHAN Maah 2020". This campaign aims to create awareness about malnutrition and asks people to contribute towards a malnutrition-free India.
Shyma Jose, a research fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations has warned that the situation of malnutrition could worsen in the state of UP. "In 2015-16, more than one-third of children in UP were malnourished, much higher than the all-India average of 35.8%. Some districts such as Shahjahanpur, Badaun, Jaunpur, Kaushambi and Chitrakoot reported having more than 50% of children suffering from underweight in 2015-16", she said while also pointing out that the prevalence of underweight children in UP has declined by less than 0.5% each year between 2005-06 and 2015-16. In such a situation, she says, "it is unlikely that the state will achieve the targets under the National Nutrition Mission also known as the Poshan Abhiyan". She fears that given the emergence of the pandemic and the subsequent freezing of the Mid-Day Meal scheme, the nutritional status of children in UP could deteriorate further. "Unless the UP government takes stringent actions to keep food safety nets such as MDM functioning, the situation of malnutrition could worsen in the state", she lamented.
The Yogi government is aware of the very high number of malnourished and undernourished children in the State. Despite the rising problems of hunger during the pandemic, it has effectively failed to provide that timely "poshan", the Prime Minister and Home Minister spoke about, to thousands of children. The Mid-Day Meal scheme is a significant way to ensure that children, ideally, get good quality and highly nourishing food. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic and the shutting down of schools, many children, especially those who solely rely on these one-time-a-day guaranteed meals, had to go and continue to go hungry because of the state's inability to strive towards a truly "Uttam Pradesh".
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