However, the Puratchi Thalaivar MGR Nutritious Meal Scheme will recommence only after schools reopen
The State government on Wednesday informed the Madras High Court that it would recommence the supply of cooked meals to around 11.77 lakh children, aged two to six, at 54,439 anganwadis in the State by September 1. The supply has remained suspended since March 17, 2020, due to COVID-19; instead, the beneficiaries were being given dry rations.
Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu were informed by Advocate-General R. Shunmugasundaram that no pre-school activities would be conducted for children when the anganwadis reopen the next month, but their parents and guardians could collect the cooked nutritious food between 11.30 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. on all working days.
The submissions were made during the hearing of a public interest litigation petition filed by the Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group, an NGO, which said the supply of hot cooked nutritious meals to needy children could not remain suspended indefinitely, especially in the light of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013.
Passing interim orders in the case on Wednesday, the judges appreciated senior counsel N.L. Rajah, representing the NGO, for bringing an important issue to the notice of the court, and the A-G for having held a meeting with Chief Secretary V. Irai Anbu on July 27, at the instance of the court, to ensure that the nutritional requirements of the children were met by the State.
In a letter addressed to the A-G on Tuesday, the Chief Secretary said the NFSA mandates the provision of supplementary nutrition, containing 500 kilo calories and 12-15 g of protein a day for 300 days a year to children between the age of three and six. However, Tamil Nadu had been providing such nutrition to children between the age of two and six.
Explaining reasons for seeking time till September 1 for supplying cooked food at the anganwadis, the top bureaucrat said though rice and dal were readily available, the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation required at least 15 days to supply palm oil, double fortified salt, black Bengal gram and green gram. He said the anganwadis should also be sanitised.
However, as far as the Puratchi Thalaivar MGR Nutritious Meal Programme, under which 41.23 lakh students of government and government-aided private schools are benefited, was concerned, the Chief Secretary said it would not be possible to provide cooked food to those children at 43,714 nutritious meal centres, until the schools were allowed to reopen. He said the NFSA mandates the provision of nutritious meals only to children studying up to Class VIII, but the Tamil Nadu government had been providing meals to students of Class IX and Class X too with its own funds. Given the high number of beneficiaries, it would not be possible to provide cooked food to all of them at the noon meal centres during the pandemic, he said.
Stating that it would also not be possible to supply cooked food at the doorsteps of individual beneficiaries, Mr. Anbu said the government was nevertheless providing dry rations such as rice, dal and eggs to the beneficiaries at the schools. The parents/guardians collect the rations either once a fortnight or once a month after producing their identity cards, he added.
After recording his submissions, the judges directed the government to make every endeavour to commence the supply of cooked food at anganwadis, much before September 1. They adjourned the PIL petition to September 3 for reporting progress.