How caste is marring mid-day meals

Discrimination against the Dalits is still pervasive in our society, and this is seriously marring the potential of the Mid Day meal scheme

By Akhileshwari Reddy
Published: Saturday 30 June 2018
Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Hunger and undernutrition have become endemic among children in India. At least 39 per cent of the children are chronically undernourished, says the latest National Family Health Survey of 2015-16. The impact is severe among those who are impoverished and socially disadvantaged. Nutritional health of these children was precisely in the mind of policymakers when they launched the Mid Day Meal Scheme and enforced it under the National Food Security Act of 2013. The scheme envisages a system in which all children, regardless of caste, would sit together and eat the same food prepared by the same cook. It was hoped that such a system would engender feelings of brotherhood and break down caste barriers.

But it hasn’t. Lofty ideals and harsh realities often go hand in hand in this country, and this became evident during a recent telecast of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Pariksha Par Charcha” speech at a government school in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu district. During the speech, the school had made Dalit students sit away from their upper caste peers. Some students later wrote to the district commissioner alleging that such caste-based discriminations are routinely practised at the school, especially during midday meals. The principal and cook, both belonging to upper castes, are responsible for perpetuating this, they claimed.

It appears that the country’s millennia-old caste system has now gotten its claws into the scheme that aims to universalise the right to food and right to education. A 2014 study by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh found that Dalit children were being given markedly less amount of food compared to upper caste children. About 30 per cent of Dalit children and parents interviewed said that they were being served lesser quantity of food, while 14 per cent reported that Dalit children were not allowed to serve food to upper caste children. Some 20 per cent of the children attended school irregularly and were disinterested in going to school because of such discrimination.

Caste prejudice does not end here. In 2015, a Dalit student of a government secondary high school in Jodhpur was severely beaten for touching plates used to serve midday meals to upper caste children. In some schools, Dalit children are asked to bring their own plates from home; are served last; and are not allowed to drink from the tap used by upper caste children. There have been instances of upper caste teachers and cooks throwing food into the plates of Dalit children from a distance to avoid touching them. A 2006 study by IIDS shows that physical space is also used as a barrier to deny many Dalit students access to midday meals. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, it was found that midday meals were being served inside temple premises where Dalits have historically been denied entry. The 2008 Report by the National Campaign on Dalit Rights to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also highlights that midday meals are usually served in upper caste localities and that during times of caste tensions, Dalit children are denied the meal to assert the dominance of these upper caste communities.

In 2013, Parliamentary Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes released a report, condemning the practice of untouchability under the scheme. Following this, the Union government created task forces to investigate the matter. Their findings were appalling. Under the scheme, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has identified 144 poorly performing districts with regards to the practice of untouchability and caste-based discrimination. The task forces visited 76 schools in Odisha and nine in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. However, they reported that they did not find instances of untouchability in any school, except at those in Odisha’s Bhoudh district. The committee report says this could not be an accurate assessment of the situation. The schools had likely been tipped off about the impending inspections, thereby skewing the findings of the task forces. To tackle the problem, the committee recommends that those practising untouchability must be given exemplary punishment and that monitoring teams should make regular, unscheduled visits to Dalit dominated schools. However, there is no indication that the government has acted on these urgently needed recommendations.

Nidhi Sabharwal, a research scholar who has written extensively on the effects of caste-based discrimination on the impoverished, says there is a need for legal as well as social solutions to tackle the issue of untouchability. In the legal realm, she says, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 needs to be amended to include new forms of discrimination within the Mid Day Meal Scheme at points of contact between the upper caste students and staff and the Dalit children. “For instance, practices like not allowing Dalit children to serve food, not employing Dalit cooks, discrimination in the amount of food served and the order in which it is served need to be included in the Act as punishable offences. The law would then have a deterrent effect on these practices. This, coupled with effective social interventions and education on the ground could lead to positive outcomes,” she says.

Further, it is imperative that the teachers and serving staff be sensitised to the ill-effects of caste discrimination on children as well as the society. In several instances, institutional silence and in certain cases, active participation of school authorities, have led to the continuation of caste-based discrimination in the Mid Day Meal Scheme. It is vital that guidelines that prohibit such discrimination are followed by all persons involved in the scheme. Building more schools in Dalit dominated regions and employing more Dalit cooks and servers could also be a way to achieve the objectives.

The idea of a caste system which is based on an inherited hierarchy of humanity is antithetical to the most fundamental idea that underpins the catena of human rights laws and the Constitution of India which hold that all persons, regardless of race, religion, colour and sex are born equal in dignity and have equal rights by the very virtue of being human. India is also party to international instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). In fact, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that monitors ICERD includes Dalit oppression under Article 1 of the Convention. The failure of the Indian government in prohibiting and penalising the perpetrators of casteism in the Mid Day Meal Scheme would thus be a failure of both its moral duties towards its people as well as its obligations under national and international laws.

(The author works with Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru)

(This article was first published in the 16-30 June issue of Down To Earth under the headline 'Casted out').

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