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In Covid times, Punjab leaves midday meal scheme beneficiaries in lurch

For several single mothers who have been raising their children alone by doing odd jobs, the ration and little money under the Midday Meal Scheme, matters a lot.

Written by Divya Goyal | Ludhiana | Updated: July 25, 2020 10:32:34 pm
punjab coronavirus latest updates, punjab covid-19, punjab coronavirus food shortage, Sarbati Devi, punjab coronavirus midday meals, punjab news Sarbati Devi with her grandchildren in Fazilka

Sarbati Devi (80) from Fazilka’s Chananwal village is saddled with bigger worries than her own health in the pandemic year. The 80-year-old is responsible for feeding five grandchildren that live with her after her daughter-in-law died and her son, Bablu, deserted them.

While schools were open, Sarbati Devi was relieved that at least four of her school going grandkids were assured at least one meal a day as part of the Midday Meal Scheme for students from Class 1 to 8. For everything else, she banked on odd MNREGA jobs. But the last four months have seen even that minor assurance of one meal drift away.

Since schools closed from March 23, she remembers receiving the Midday Meal ration just once (2-kg rice and 2-kg wheat) and cooking cost (Rs 200) that was credited into bank accounts of her two granddaughters. After that, neither the ration nor cooking cost reached the family.

However, the local government primary school’s head teacher Lavjeet Singh Grewal had been helping the family at his own level, during the lockdown.

Her three granddaughters – Sohna (Class 4), Sapna (Class 5), Bhawna (Class 7) and a grandson Mohit (class 1) — study at a government school and are the beneficiaries of the ration and cooking cost under the mid day meal scheme. While teachers were assigned the duty to distribute ration packets door-to-door with schools being closed, cooking costs had to be transferred to their bank accounts.

“After my daughter-in-law died, my son left home. It has been two years now. I do not know where he is. He became a liquor addict and refused to take care of his kids. I do odd labour jobs to raise his five children. When schools were open, children were getting stomach-full meals at least once a day. At this age, it is not easy for me to work and cook for them but I try. We received 2 kg rice and 2 kg wheat once and Rs 200 for my two granddaughters, but it was almost two months back. For us, this aid matters a lot because I have no source of fixed income,” Sarbati Devi said, while speaking to The Indian Express from her neighbour’s phone. This neighbour helps the children in accessing online study material as their grandmother doesn’t have a smartphone.

For several single mothers who have been raising their children alone by doing odd jobs, the ration and little money under the Midday Meal Scheme, matters a lot.

Sandeep Kaur from village Nathewal of Jalandhar, whose son Arun is in Class 3 and daughter Rajni in Class 5, works as a domestic help in homes and as MNREGA worker, raising her children single-handedly after her husband died. She doesn’t have a smartphone and her children borrow someone’s phone to access online studies.

“We received some rice and wheat once but no money has been received yet for either of my two children. I work in other people’s homes to raise my kids. Whatever help comes, be it ration or Rs 100-200, it matters,” she said.

Rani Kaur, a widow, from a village in Jalandhar, said that when schools were open, her two children, Daljit (Class 3) and daughter Manpreet (Class 5), would love having meals there and the everyday menu was different giving them proper nutrition. “After my husband’s death, I work as a domestic help and earn Rs 3,000 a month. I cannot give my children the kind of diet they were getting at government school daily. My son asks daily when school will reopen. We received half kg rice and wheat once, but no money has been received for any of the kids,” said Rani, talking to The Indian Express from the phone of her relative.

For the family of Jaspreet Kaur from Moga, whose husband earns Rs 300-400 a day as a labourer, timely distribution of midday meal ration would have meant a lot during lockdown, as seven kids from their joint family study in a government school.

“We received ration and Rs 110 once for our children, but nothing after that. Seven kids of our family are in government school and we all work as laborers,” added Jaspreet.

Data accessed by The Indian Express showed that after schools were closed in March last week, the Punjab Education Department has distributed foodgrains and cooking cost to the students (Class 1 to 8) under the Midday Meal scheme just once, for the period of less than a month — from March 23 to April 15.

From April 16 to July till now, that is for more than three months, neither foodgrains nor the cooking cost has been distributed. This has hit families of underprivileged children the most.

Centre seeks report

On June 25, the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) also sought a report from the Punjab government for its failure in fully implementing the Midday Meal scheme during the lockdown during a meeting held via video conferencing. Among those who attended were Ram Chandra Meena, Joint Secretary, Department of School Education and literacy, MHRD and Mohammad Tayyab, Director General, School Education, Punjab.

The minutes of the meeting between MHRD and state officials, accessed by The Indian Express, said: “MHRD has advised all states and UTs vide letter dated 20.03.2020 and 29.04.2020 regarding provision of midday meal or food security allowance to the eligible children under Midday Meal Scheme during closure of schools during Covid-19 and summer vacations 2020-21, respectively. Punjab has provided only foodgrains to children during closure of schools.”

The minutes recorded that Punjab has been “advised to immediately distribute cooking cost or its equivalent pulses, oil etc and submit an action taken report.”

As per the order dated July 3 issued by the mid day meal division of the MHRD, this year students will also receive foodgrains and cooking cost for June (which otherwise is a vacation month), as ‘a one time special measure due to COVID-19’ so as ‘to enable them to meet their nutritional requirement and to safeguard their immunity which is very vital during COVID-19 pandemic’.

Inexplicable delay

In fact, it was only after June 30, after an inexplicable delay of nearly three months and a rap from the MHRD, that the District Education Offices in Punjab started receiving separate letters from the head office to distribute cooking cost (pulses, oil etc) and foodgrains to the children for the period of April 16 to June 30.

As per a letter, dated July 21, to DEO, Fazilka (copy with The Indian Express), the primary children (Class 1 to 5) are entitled to 700 gm wheat (7 days)/800 gm rice (8 days) and Rs 67.20 cooking cost for a period of 15 days from April 16 to April 30. Likewise, upper-primary kids (Class 6 to 8) are entitled to 1.05 kg wheat (7 days)/1.20 kg rice (8 days) and Rs 100.65 cooking cost for the same period.

At this rate what remains pending for the children across Punjab from the period of April 16 to June 30 (65 days), is 3.2 kg wheat (32 days)/3.3 kg rice (33 days) and cooking cost of Rs 308.84 per child for primary. For upper-primary it is: 4.8 kg wheat (32 days)/4.95 kg rice (33 days) and Rs 462.79 cooking cost per child.

On May 19, the Punjab State Midday Meal Society in its orders had said that as per orders from MHRD received on April 14, the cooking cost per child was increased from Rs 4.48 (per child per day) to Rs 4.97 for primary. For upper-primary it has been revised to Rs 7.45 per day from Rs 6.71. The revised amount was applicable in Punjab from May 15, stated the orders.

“This Midday Meal aid being given to the students roughly translates to just 100 gm wheat/rice per day and nearly Rs 150 as cooking cost for a month. On the face of it, it is too little but for families of children who are surviving doing labour work and some even without work, this also means a lot,” a government teacher told The Indian Express.

We’re not to blame: Teachers

Teachers, meanwhile, said that they have been moving door-to-door to distribute foodgrain packets to kids when the first lot was received but after that nothing came.

A teacher, requesting anonymity, said, “The foodgrains were received for March 23 to April 15 and we distributed them. We went around in our own vehicles and gave packets to kids. After that we did not receive ration for the rest of the months. Teachers are not at fault. Also, some students also do not have bank accounts due to which there was an issue in transferring cooking cost.”

Another teacher said that foodgrains for pending months were received on Friday, but pending cooking cost aid was not credited to bank accounts even now. “We will start distributing ration packets received today, but cooking cost aid is yet to be received still,” he said.

Punjab govt’s claims

Meanwhile, Prabhcharan Singh, general manager, Midday Meal Scheme, Punjab, refused to answer any queries. “I am not authorised to speak to the journalists. Whatever we had to say in this regard, the state Education Minister has said in a media statement. I will not answer any queries,” he said.

In a statement that was issued by Punjab School Education Minister Vijay Inder Singla on July 16, he had said that “midday meal is being provided to 15.79 lakh children across Punjab”.

“Nearly 8262.23 metric tonnes (MT) of foodgrains has been sent to the schools for the first financial quarter of the academic session 2020-21. For the second quarter (July 20-September 20), allocation of 11,974 MT has also been approved. The amount of Rs 37.26 crore as cooking cost has already been sanctioned by the state government which has to be transferred to the accounts of beneficiary students as per the guidelines laid by the Union government. As some students did not have any operative bank account, around Rs 14 crore is lying with the respective schools. We have directed the Education Department officials to get a nod from MHRD for releasing the cooking amount in cash to the students,” he claimed.

The minister could not be reached for comments despite repeated attempts by The Indian Express.

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