Tamil Nadu’s prestigious noon meal scheme, an internationally acclaimed social justice model, has landed in a controversy with the AIADMK government’s decision to engage an NGO, Akshaya Patra Foundation, to serve breakfast to 32,000 students in schools run by the Greater Chennai Corporation.
Projected as a brainchild of Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit, the project has been allocated Rs 5 crore from the Governor’s discretionary fund. The NGO has been allotted land by the Corporation at prime locations in Chennai to set up centralised kitchens.
Akshaya Patra Foundation is an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Bengaluru, and its menu without garlic, onion and eggs, has drawn criticism from opposition parties and experts alike.
While the noon meal scheme in government schools is being run by the government for decades, this is the first initiative to provide school children with breakfast.
Greater Chennai Corporation’s Commissioner G Prakash said the current programme “taken up by the Governor is to ensure that children do not attend morning classes on empty stomach”. It will not involve any government assistance, barring the Governor’s fund and Corporation land, he said.
A kitchen facility in Greams Road “will feed healthy, nutritious and sumptuous breakfast to 12,000 children of 35 Corporation schools in the city,” according to a statement from Akshaya Patra.
Rajya Sabha member and MDMK leader Vaiko pointed at ISKCON’s menu for similar schemes that avoid onion, garlic and eggs and said in a statement, “In Tamil Nadu, eggs are provided as part of nutritious meal scheme to students. Now ISKCON will force them to eat vegetarian food. Developed countries even provide meat to students.”
Alleging that the AIADMK government has handed over the prestigious scheme to a Hindutva group, he said that Tamil Nadu’s Kaalai Unnavu Thittam (breakfast scheme) would now become a “Manu-dharma meal scheme”.
In a statement, main opposition DMK criticised the move to engage an organisation known for “food fascism” when the state is equipped with infrastructure and resources to feed schoolchildren across Tamil Nadu.
Justice K Chandru, retired judge of Madras High Court who has extensively studied the state’s noon meal scheme and served several judgments in this regard, called the government’s move to collaborate with a private agency for such a project “suicidal”. He said, “The government is primarily washing its hands off a social justice scheme. Entering into such a deal with an NGO by giving them prime land is nothing but creating a scenario in which they can blackmail the government tomorrow.”
In a state like Tamil Nadu, where 90 per cent people eat non-vegetarian food, there is no logic behind the move in engaging an organisation that is blamed for their “food propaganda” by rejecting garlic, onion and eggs, Justice Chandru said.
J Jayaranjan, a senior food expert from the Institute of Development Alternatives, said engaging an NGO like Akshaya Patra ridicules Tamil Nadu’s long legacy in pioneering and running a successful noon meal scheme. “We shouldn’t forget that the Governor has given this money at a time when the Centre slashed hundreds of crores from the noon meal funding scheme,” Jayaranjan said.
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