Plight of children due to non-availability of mid-day meals: Patna HC takes cognizance; govt takes action

Even as court took suo moto cognizance, Bihar govt issued a statewide order to distribute ration to school children for 3 months and transfer money to their bank accounts in lieu of food scheme

Patna High Court
Patna High Court

NH Web Desk

The Patna High Court has taken suo moto cognizance of the plight of children in district Bhagalpur, Bihar due to non-availability of mid-day meals following shutting of schools and Anganwadi centres amid the COVID-19 pandemic, legal news website has reported.

The bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar has taken cognizance of the matter based on a news report run by the Indian Express which pointed out that children had been forced to indulge inbegging, garbage picking and scrap selling, due to non-availability of food.

"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," the bench said.

The news report stated that ever since the shutting down of the Anganwadi centres and suspension of supply of mid-day meals to children under various schemes rooted by the government, due to lockdown, families and children who come from poor socio-economic backgrounds are facing economic hardships and as a result are "unable to put food on the table".

As per the news item, a sum of Rs.114.21 to children from classes 1-5, and Rs.171.17 to children from classes 6-8 is being remitted directly into the bank accounts of the parents. Incidents were reported where no money stands remitted into the bank accounts of parents since April 2020. For earning, many families, including young children, are being forced into garbage collection or begging, the bench recorded.

Expressing concern over the issue the bench said, "Adequate nutrition is essential for school children's health and wellbeing. Children are kept away from schools and Anganwadi centres to restrict the spread of COVID 19. As a result, many nutrition 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 reposed that the "constitutional and statutory mandate" needs to be implemented in letter and spirit. It observed that as per Article 47 of the Constitution, the state has a duty to raise the level of nutrition and standards of living of its people and improve public health. Similarly, Section 5 of the National Food Security Act 2013 casts a statutory obligation on the government to provide nutritional support to children.

"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 COVID-19pandemic. 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," the bench said while making a direction to the HC Registrar to register the petition as a suo moto case.

The Government of Bihar, its Department of Health & Family Welfare, and its Department of Education have been impleaded as Respondent-parties and have been directed to file an affidavit on all the issues within the next two days.

In the interregnum, the bench said, "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 8 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 pandemic. Let the state take a conscious decision on this aspect."

It added, "we direct the respondents herein to ensure that no child is pushed into or indulges in any activity of rack picking or beggary, more so on account of lack of food."

However, the bench said that these instructions should not be misunderstood as a direction to opening and recommencing classes.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express reported that following its report, 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.

In the order, Bihar Additional Chief Secretary (Education) R K Mahajan referred to the COVID-19 shutdown and wrote: “In this situation, under the Food Security Act, for 24 working days in May, 30 days of summer vacation in June, and 26 working days in July (a total of 80 days), food will be given in fixed quantity to children and replacement cash amounts will be given by DBT into their accounts.”

The order states that children in classes 1-5 will get 8 kg of ration and Rs 358 via DBT, calculated on a daily rate of 100g and Rs 4.48 for 80 days. Students of class 6-8 will get 12 kg of ration and Rs 536, based on a daily rate of 150g and Rs 6.71 for 80 days, it states.

Subhash Gupta, District Programme Officer, Mid-Day Meals (MDM), Bhagalpur, said, “Payments under DBT were made until May. Now ration will be given after headmasters are notified from tomorrow. Money in lieu of oil and other food items, which was given during MDM, will also be handed over for three months.”

Monday’s order states that schools will prepare class-wise rosters, and call parents or guardians to receive the ration while maintaining strict health norms. “Under no circumstance will children come to school,” it states.

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