By Ananya Nadgauda
The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has drawn much criticism and analysis ever since it was finalized by the government. But one aspect of the new policy that has missed its fair share of debate and discussion is the fact that the provision of mid-day meals for children attending government schools has been expanded significantly.
This provision seems to have drawn on the success of the current form of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme of the Central Government. According to the National Food Security Act (2013), children between the ages of 6-14 years (falling in classes 1-8) are entitled to one mid-day meal every day, free of charge, if they attend a school run by local government bodies, or if their school is a government or government-aided school. The program currently provides free lunch on school working days for children in primary and upper primary classes. Now, to add to this provision, the NEP 2020 has proposed that these mid-day meals at noon should be supplemented by breakfast as well.
Under capitalism, food has become a commodity and a luxury rather than a basic human right. This cannot be the case in a socialist governance system such as that of India. Under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which India has ratified), we have committed to yielding adequate nutritious food for children. After all, extensive research has proven the correlation between proper nutrition intake and academic performance among children. However, India remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, with the highest number of malnourished people in the subcontinent. Iron, Vitamin A, and Iodine deficiency is prominent among Indian children under the age of 5. This seriously stunts their growth, leads to reading and speaking problems, inability to concentration, vision impairment, calcium deficiencies and weak immune systems among other serious health issues.
Recent data suggests that more than a quarter of the Indian population living in rural areas of India are below the Poverty Line (if the income or consumption falls below a certain minimum level computed by the task force committee of NITI Aayog, then that household is said to be Below the Poverty Line). Out of the total population living in rural India, 25.7% is living below the poverty line and in urban areas, 13.7% come under BPL.
In the context of the Tendulkar Poverty Line which has recently been backed by NITI Aayog, the minimum wage of an unskilled labourer is Rs. 297, but the cost of an average meal is 12.8 rupees per person (a meal that essentially comprises rice and lentils). Consider a family of five people. They could realistically have a combined monthly budget of Rs. 5000. On average, monthly rent costs Rs. 2500 per month or approximately Rs. 82.19 per day. If each person has two meals a day, in this family of five, that’s Rs. 64 per day, and approximately Rs. 2000 per month. This leaves only 500 rupees for medicine, transport, education, etc.
According to the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India, 2011 evaluations of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme have revealed other benefits as well apart from nutritional, including attracting children from vulnerable communities to school (such as girls, Dalits and Adivasis) and improving the attendance of enrolled students.
Considering these aspects, it seems that the best provision that the NEP 2020 has included is definitely in relation to the expansion of the Mid-Day meals to not one, but two meals per day at school. While implementation of the Mid-Day meal scheme has met with setbacks in some parts of the country due to the prevalence of corruption, the provision contained in the new NEP has its heart in the right place.