New Delhi: Thousands of mid-day meal (MDM) workers from across Andhra Pradesh staged a protest on Monday in Vijayawada district demanding, among others, rescinding of the MDM contract with Akshaya Patra Foundation, enhancement of government spending on each child’s meal and clearing pending bills of self-help groups. The workers gathered under the banner of the Centre for Indian Trade Union (CITU).
Akshaya Patra Foundation – a non-government organisation associated with the ISKCON trust – was allotted ₹100 crore in the maiden state budget of the YSR Congress Party government for construction of centralised kitchens to prepare food for the meal scheme.
State funding to the foundation has triggered protests by the local self-help group workers, mainly women, who fear loss of employment due to centralisation of the scheme’s operations.
However, the protesting workers were prevented from demonstrating by the local police and eight of them were arrested.
Babu Rao, state secretariat member of Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Newsclick that the mid-day meal workers were feeling betrayed by the Jaganmohan Reddy government which, before the Assembly elections, had assured them of not privatising the meal scheme by handing over operations to NGOs (non-governmental organisations).
“The concept of centralised kitchens does not coincide with the objectives of the mid-day meal scheme,” said Rao, “as the kitchens are far away from schools and the freshness of the meal will get compromised.”
He also pointed out that such schemes were a major source of employment for women, especially in rural areas. These women, who currently work in government school kitchens, may end up losing their jobs.
The workers protested in Vijayawada for reasons more than just the corporatisation of the scheme. They are also perturbed by the decision of the state government to fund Akshaya Patra Foundation, an organisation that has been embroiled in some health-related controversies, as per media reports.
Recently, 20 students in Tadepalli town of Andhra Pradesh, were hospitalised for vomiting after eating their mid-day meal served by the Akshaya Patra Foundation.
In another news, the ISKCON staff was reported to have diverted rice bags that were being supplied to them for the MDM programme, allegedly to an African nation through a private exporter in Kakinada.
Read Also: Diversion ‘of Mid-Day Meal Rice? Raids Unearth Over 1,200 Bags at ISKCON, Visakhapatnam
The foundation has also, with its policy of not supplying eggs – a major source of protein – to children due to its pro-vegetarian subscription, sparked debates among the decision makers. Those who oppose such pro-vegetarian subscriptions see the foundation’s policies as a threat to local culture and food habits. While some others, championing the foundation’s cause, see the foundation’s operations as a ‘charity’, forgetting the fact that it is being given substantial financial support by the government.
The MDM workers also protested against the “callous” attitude of the YSRCP government in clearing pending bills due to the SHGs which, they said, had forced the workers to procure groceries on credit and, in some cases, even by taking a personal loans.
Speaking to Newsclick, Rao said that in addition to the mounting arrears by the state government, mid-day meal workers in many districts have also been paid wages since the past two-three months.