THE RIGHT TO FOOD AND MID-DAY MEALS
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
By- Ajitesh Arya, 2nd Year Student of NALSAR University of Law
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his recent address to the nation, stated that no individual had died of hunger during the lockdown caused by COVID- 19 outbreak. The claim sounds alleviating, but the reality is often disappointing. Even during healthy days, many children lose their lives to hunger and starvation. As per the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016, 59% of children under the age of 5 years suffered from malnutrition, and 36% were underweight. These stats make us wonder about the status of a child’s right to food in India and its implementation. The article shall venture to locate the answers to these pressing questions.
INTERNATIONAL RIGHT TO FOOD
The Child’s Right to food is not a concern specific to India only, but a pressing issue at the global level. Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights is one of the first provisions talking about a right to food, which got finally reflected in Article 11 of the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This provision provides that the state parties (India being one) shall ensure an adequate standard of living and food for the citizens to prevent starvation. The states should respect, protect, and fulfill these rights. Article 2.1 of the same puts the burden on the state-parties to ensure the right with the help of maximum available resources at hand. Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in its General Comment 12 has expanded the scope of the right to include nourishing, sustainable, and safe food under Article 11 while explaining the State’s obligations. In this regard, Article 24 of the International Convention on Child Rights is also of great importance, ensuring the right to healthy food and water for children. Several organizations like FAO (Federal Agriculture Organization) have also issued guidelines towards the sustainability of food for children.
RIGHT TO FOOD IN INDIA
The right to food in India is not presented in the Constitution. Still, it can be located in Article 39(a) directing the state to ensure adequate means of livelihood to the citizens; one cannot expect sustenance of livelihood in the absence of adequate and nutritious food. To fulfill the requirement, Article 47 directs the state to ensure an efficient increase in the nutritional level of the citizens to improve the standard of living. These articles are merely directive principles and lacked proper implementation. There was a need to concretize the laws. The Supreme finally in the universally cited case of PUCL v. Union of India, through an interim order, raised the right to food to the pedestal of the fundamental right to live enshrined under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also, through its decision, held that Article 39(a) and 47 are to be read with Article 21. Therefore, the right to food can finally be enforced in the Courts as a fundamental right. Finally, section 5(a) of the National Food Security Act, 2013 provides for free food for the kids up to six years of age and mid-day meals for students till VIII standard. Section 6 also talks about provisions for children struck by malnutrition.
The mid-day meal program is a scheme of the central government under which students up to standard VIII get meals in the schools. It was started to increase the retention, admission, and attendance of the students in the schools. Initially, the mid-day meal was unveiled in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat. The central government unveiled the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education on 15th August 1995 in 2408 blocks under which mid-day meal was to be provided to the children of class I to V. By the year 2009, the plan was expanded to all the blocks, including all government, public, government-aided private schools, and Madarsas. The scheme also included students in standards VI to VIII. There are plans of MHRD to extend the scheme up to class X. It is expected that the students at the primary level get the calorie intake of 450 from a meal; the figure rises to 700 for children in upper primary education. Currently, Food grains worth Rs. 100 and 150 are also provided to the students of primary and upper primary levels, respectively.
The Mid-day meal scheme and the right to food, though, appear theoretically to be perfect. Still, a single search on Google shall turn in hundreds of results of failure in the implementation and other misgivings, be it the demise of 23 children because of poisoned food in Bihar or salt-roti being served in UP. A report published in “the Mint” has shown that only 82% of the children in government schools enjoy the meal. Despite the various requirements and guidelines on nutritional values, a lot of poor school-going children suffer from malnutrition. The discrepancies can be attributed to several factors. The money spent on a child’s meal at the primary level is merely 4.48 Rs, which becomes—Rs.6.71 at the upper primary stage.
Similarly, the usual served pulses and cereals in the mid-day meals may fail to provide a requisite amount of digestible proteins to the students. The cooks are also not incentivized to cook better meals with a mere honorarium of 1000 Rs per month and an additional 0.40 Rs. for each meal. Just like any other scheme, corruption deeply inhibits the mid-day meal scheme as well. As per CAG report, 2015, 8 states diverted funds worth Rs.123.34 crores meant for mid-day meals. Casteism is another prevalent social evil restricting the full enjoyment of the right to food and education for many children. A recent example of casteism inhibiting the right to food can be seen in Madhya Pradesh, where children refused the food prepared by a Dalit cook.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has raised serious problems for the children, not only does the financial condition of their household is strained, but also they are deprived of their mid-day meals at schools. The children in Bihar are forced to return to the hazardous occupations of labour, garbage-picking, etc. to sustain themselves. High Court of Patna has taken suo-moto cognizance of the matter. The children and their families have to wait for the verdict, but we have reasons to be hopeful as the Supreme Court in Swarajya Abhiyan v. Union of India held that in harsh conditions like drought provisions are to be made for the children under the mid-day meal scheme.
The right to food is both universal and national. The failure in the implementation of the mid-day meal scheme and a high rate of malnutrition raises compelling interdisciplinary questions on a child’s right to health and the rights of women. There is a need for a more vigilant implementation of the scheme. The expenditure per meal should be increased. The Supreme Court can play a major role in ensuring the right to food to the citizens of India by using the powers of writ conferred upon it by Article 32 of the Constitution. The courts should be quick to take cognizance of cases where the right to food is abrogated. They have to realize that the mid-day meal scheme and other such food security schemes are not benevolent or moral rights created by the state but rather obligatory rights mandated by the great Constitution of India.
 Performance Audit of Mid-Day Meal Scheme (2009-10 to 2013-14), CAG Report 36 of 2015, 68-69.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Child Rights Centre.)