by Vaibhav and Dheeraj
The mid-day meal scheme is one of the programs undertaken by the central government to provide nutritious food and education to children. Though this scheme has a long history, what is even older is casteism. The roots of casteism are embedded so deeply in society that now they have found their way into the mid-day meal program in various ways. Be it the Dalit students being denied food, untouchability being practised, their rights infringed upon, or even their dropout, casteism is playing its part. What this results in is malnutrition, discrimination, hunger, and the lives of children who are getting affected. The authors in this article attempt to draw a parallel between mid-day meal schemes and casteism and how the former, despite being a wonderful scheme, has been caught in the vicious web of the latter. Further, it has also been discussed how the legal framework has failed to deter the evils of untouchability.
The recent incident in Rajasthan where a 9-year-old Dalit student lost his life for quenching his thirst from the earthen pot which was specially reserved for the teachers of higher castes. The incident has shaken the conscience of the supposedly modern and equal society. The same has also raised a question i.e., for how long will the temples of learning continue to propagate casteism and innocent students will continue to be subjected to the same evil?
The news is a recent one but the issue is an age-old evil. There are certain other arenas where casteism is being propagated in schools. One of such is the mid-day meal scheme that has been provided by the government to encourage children from poor backgrounds to have their primary schooling. With the goals of nutrition, enrollment, and retention in mind, the mid-day meal scheme delivers prepared food to all pupils enrolled in government schools across the country. But with the grace of the Indian social structure, the same is also not untouched from the evils of casteism.
A BRIEF BACKGROUND OF THE SCHEME
Before we start to look over the intersection of casteism and the mid-day meal scheme, it is important to take a look at the history of the scheme. The mid-day meal scheme was first started in the Madras Municipal Corporation way back in 1925, and by 1990-91, 12 states were implementing this scheme with their own resources. Further, the Central Government launched Nutritional Support to Primary Education in 1995, which then consisted of a free supply of food grains to children in government schools etc. was later revised in 2004 to provide cooked mid-day meals for students from classes I-V. Upper primary classes were also covered in the revised scheme from 2007.
If one tries to look for the inherent casteism in the mid-day meal program implementation, one would easily get several examples from across the country portraying the inherent casteism. Be it the Dalit students shunned and made to sit separately in Uttar Pradesh, the students refusing to eat a meal cooked by a Dalit cook in Uttarakhand, institutional casteism in the hiring of cooks in Himachal Pradesh, Scheduled Caste students being asked to keep their plates apart in Uttar Pradesh, students dropping out of school because of the appointment of a Dalit head cook in Karnataka, anger caused due to appointment of a Dalit cook in Tamil Nadu; all these instances are a clear portrayal of inherent casteism.
LEGAL PROVISIONS AND THE BLANKET COVERING ON THEM
The inherent casteism in the mid-day meal scheme is a clear violation of many rights. The first one is the violation of the right to equality, i.e., Article 14 of the Constitution. This inherent casteism discriminates against innocent children based on caste resulting in either differential treatment or the scheduled caste students being wholly shunned from the school.
Another right this inherent practice violates is Article 16 of the Constitution. The casteism in the mid-day meal scheme leaves its traces on the cook who prepares mid-day meals for the students. When the students refused to eat food prepared by a Dalit cook in Uttarakhand, what followed was the refusal to eat food in the same school prepared by the Brahmin cook. Thus, it’s the hands of the Bhojan Mata which are getting burnt in this fight against casteism as it leads to discrimination in employment on the basis of caste.
The next right being violated is Article 17 of the Constitution, providing for the abolition of untouchability. This practice discriminates and even practices untouchability amongst the children on the basis of their caste. This becomes a serious problem as the minds of children are getting numbed while being caught in the claws of the oppressive age-old evil.
This practice also hampers the right to health and the right to food for children. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 found that 39% of children are chronically undernourished and even more so if they belong to the socially disadvantaged section. Mid-day meal program was also launched to tackle the problem of undernourishment among children and to promote harmony when everyone would be eating together, but when the Dalit students are denied food or are asked to sit separately, their Constitutional rights are being infringed upon. Also, the eggs not being allowed in the meal also traces the rationale to casteism because of the belief that eggs and non veg are being consumed by those belonging to lower castes.
The right to education being provided under article 21 (A) of the Constitution is also severely impacted when casteism is followed in the mid-day meal scheme. The discrimination in the mid-day meal program, be it in the quantity or quality of food given (if at all), serving at inaccessible places, serving from a safe distance, etc., also causes the Dalit students to drop out of school which is a direct blow to the right to education as has also happened in Tamil Nadu.
When all these violations are taken into account, what flows from that is the case of child abuse when they are being forced to stay out of school and discriminated against, resulting in emotional and mental abuse as well as neglect.
What one must understand is that those who have the authority and are in the position to set the direction must keep in mind the social and age-old practices and thus, strive to eliminate the inherent casteism. Those trying to become an obstacle in education and mid-day meal schemes on the basis of caste should be dealt with iron-handedly. The issue is dealt with socially by raising awareness and stakeholders’ sensitisation against casteism and legally by amending the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to include the practice of casteism in whatever form in the mid-day meal as a punishable offense so as to have a deterrent effect on this practice. Institutional silence should be condemned, and there should be no way other than being against casteism in the mid-day meal scheme that should be followed so as to protect the children from falling prey to casteism. Education of Dalits, their enrolment, and the employment of Dalit cooks should be focused on. The issue of casteism in the mid-day meal should be looked at from the ambit of the right to food and right to education as well as to formulate strict policies on the issue.
THE WAY FORWARD
Casteism being practised in the mid-day meal program is not a new trend and is manifesting itself in a myriad of ways again and again in different parts of the country. The focus while dealing with this issue should be that it is the innocent children who are ultimately being impacted by this evil practice, and it’s their dreams that are being chained by casteism in the mid-day meal scheme, and that casteism should not be allowed to mar the objectives and aims of the scheme. The Constitutional goals of justice and the fundamental rights can never be achieved unless the children are being focused upon, and when talking about children, it is necessary that the inherent casteism in the mid-day meal scheme is officially recognised and steps are taken to curb this menace. The main objectives to be achieved behind the mid-day meal are far from sight due to the countless incidents of inherent casteism. This shouldn’t be allowed to become an unquestionable norm, even more so after the pandemic when the children have been one of the most severely affected groups.
Episodes of bigotry and marginalization have always existed, and they will persist unless we develop structures that are more accommodating of our diversity through socio political inclusion. Without knowing our rights and without the will to fight for them, equality and justice, which are guaranteed by the constitution, would not manifest. In order for people to have their opinions heard, it is essential that they are fairly represented in positions of power and public service.
Vaibhav and Dheeraj are both law students at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. Vaibhav has been a KYBKYR Fellow at The YP Foundation and has interests in constitutional law, human rights and public policy. Dheeraj has a keen interest in public policy and human rights