Close on the heels of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) taking a serious view of The Indian Express report on Bhagalpur school children taking to rag-picking after closure of school and discontinuance of midday meal scheme since the lockdown began, the Patna High Court on Monday took suo motu cognizance of the Express report and directed Bihar government to start distributing midday meal ration to students.
The court directed the government “to ensure that no child is pushed into” or indulges in any activity of rag-picking or begging, “more so on account of lack of food” and asked it to submit a detailed reply within two weeks.
On Monday, The Indian Express reported that children of the Musahari tola of Badbilla village were turning to rag-picking after the mid-day meal scheme was discontinued with the lockdown coming into effect.
After the report highlighted the plight of a Mahadalit village in Bhagalpur in the absence of mid-day meals, the Bihar government issued a statewide order to distribute ration to school children for three months and transfer money to their bank accounts, or to that of their guardians, in lieu of the food scheme.
The order was issued even as NHRC took suo motu cognizance of The Indian Express report and issued notices to the Centre and Bihar, seeking a detailed reply within four weeks on what it said was a “serious issue”.
A division bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar, on its own motion on the basis of the July 6 news report titled “School shut, no mid-day meal, children in Bihar village back to work selling scrap”, said, “The news article highlights an issue of public importance and relevance. It concerns the welfare of children hailing from the lower most strata of the society; the marginalized, downtrodden, socially and economically deprived section of the society. Adequate nutrition is essential for school children’s health and well being. Children are kept away from schools and Anganwadi centres to restrict the spread of COVID 19.”
The court directed the state government through the education department to file an affidavit on all the issues within the next two days.
“Perhaps, for meeting the minimum nutritional requirement of a child, Anganwadi Centre; Community Centre(s) or the schools can be opened up, for a limited…purpose of providing food to the children. This, of course, has to be in conformity with the directions issued by the authorities for meeting with the situation of the current
Covid-19 pandemic. Let the state take a conscious decision on this aspect,” said the court order.
The order said “deficient children who rely heavily on government schemes to meet their daily nutrition requirements have been put at risk. The disruption and closure of schools across the State will have a negative impact not just on children’s right to education but also in specific cases, their right to adequate food”.
The court order also cited Article 47 of the Constitution, which says the state has a “duty to raise the level of nutrition and standards of living of its people and improve public health. Section 5 of the National Food Security Act 2013 provides for nutritional support to children by way of meals at Anganwadi centres and schools run by the government. The constitutional and statutory mandate needs implementation in letter and spirit”.
The court said the “the relevant issue that arises is whether the State is fulfilling its statutory and constitutional mandate of providing food and nutritional security to children who have been adversely impacted by the closure of schools and Anganwadi centres due to the pandemic Covid-19. The secondary issue that arises is that with the closing down of schools, what measures can be adopted to prevent school children from indulging in begging and garbage collection”.
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It further said, “Considering the importance of the issues, we take cognizance of the news article and issue notice to the State. We wish to clarify that the present proceedings may not be misunderstood as a direction to opening and recommencing classes.”
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