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Pune: Over 2 lakh children of migrant cane harvesters deprived of mid-day meals for months

This season, state mills have seen an unusually large number of children accompanying their parents. Reports of leopard attacks earlier in the year in Beed district were among the reasons a higher number of cane harvesters brought their families along.

Written by Partha Sarathi Biswas | Baramati |
January 20, 2021 8:03:44 pm
pune, mid-daymeal, migrant can harvestersA joint initiative of the Union and state government, over 1 crore school children in 86,293 schools in Maharashtra benefit from the mid-day meal scheme. (Representational)

Over 2 lakh children of migrant cane harvesters are unable to access either their mid-day meals or their share of ration, as schools in Maharashtra are yet to reopen completely after the pandemic forced them to shut down almost a year ago. Due to lack of clear policy to aid them, these children fail to get their mid-day meals once they travel with their parents out of their home districts.

Served to students in aided and government schools, the mid-day meal is often, for many students from poor families, the only nutritious meal of the day. A joint initiative of the Union and state government, over 1 crore school children in 86,293 schools in the state benefit from the mid-day meal scheme.

After schools across the country were forced to shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, a concerned Supreme Court had asked states and union territories to devise a policy to deliver these meals to the children. The Maharashtra government had decided to dole out extra ration, including rice and lentils, to students who were missing out on mid-day meals.

But children of cane harvesters, who have traveled with their parents to districts where sugar mills are located, neither get the meals nor the ration. Most cane harvesters hail from the districts of Beed, Ahmednagar, Jalgaon, Dhule and Nandurbar. Along with their families, they came to sugar mills for work in October and are expected to remain there till the end of the crushing season in April-May.

This season, state mills have seen an unusually large number of children accompanying their parents. Reports of leopard attacks earlier in the year in Beed district were among the reasons a higher number of cane harvesters brought their families along.

With the Right to Education allowing the seamless transfer of students, children of cane harvesters get enrolled at the nearest zilla parishad school, said Paresh Jayashree Manohar, programme manager at Tata Trust, which works with the children of cane harvesters who come to the Shree Someshwar Cooperative Sugar Mill. Located in Baramati taluka of Pune district — the home turf of former Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar — this mill provides employment to nearly 5,000 to 6,000 migrant workers.

“Our volunteers used to conduct a door-to door survey of the families and enrolled the children, between the ages of six and 14, in the schools. This way, their education would continue unhampered and they also got access to mid-day meals,” he said.

This year, however, such enrollment was not possible as the schools were closed, said Manohar. This means that lakhs of students across the state would also not get their mid-day meals. The Shree Someshwar Cooperative Sugar Mill in Baramati employs thousands of migrant workers, and accounts for 920 children in the school-going age group. “Across the state, approximately 2 lakh children must be accompanying their parents to another district for cane harvesting. The school closure has resulted in all of them being deprived of mid-day meals,” said Manohar.

CEO of Pune Zilla Parishad, Ayush Prasad, admitted that children of migrant workers often suffer due to lack of a clear policy for them. “We have written to the state government to devise a permanent policy about them,” he said.

According to Prasad and other zilla parishad senior officers, this issue had arisen because these children were part of the school roll in their home districts, where they were eligible for the scheme. Given the absence of a mechanism to track the movement of children of migrant workers, it is not yet possible to transfer this benefit to their place of temporary residence.

During the peak of the pandemic, Prasad had devised a scheme to supply ration to migrants on the basis of their Aadhaar cards. The scheme, which had received a fair amount of attention, allowed migrants to get ration from the public distribution system, based on village-level surveys.

Asked why this scheme was not being reworked for children of migrant workers, Prasad said the zilla parishad didn’t have funds to run the scheme now. “Back then, CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds were used for the scheme. At this moment, we do not have any funding for such a scheme,” he said.

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