One of the aims of the midday meal was to break down caste barriers
India's midday meal scheme for schoolchildren, billed as the world's largest hunger intervention project, lies on the fault lines of caste discrimination that is gnawing away at its social fundamentals, say ground level workers.
The government funded program, which ensures a meal a day for about 120 million children in more than 1.2 million schools, is aimed at persuading impoverished parents to send their children to schools, and not to work.
It was also intended to bring social equality by feeding children of all castes and religions together in a land where certain communities were considered impure and untouchable.
But it does not seem to be working.
Higher caste students in Bihar bring their own plates to avoid any chance of having to eat from a plate used by underprivileged classmates, while children from indigenous communities in Madhya Pradesh are served lunch in a separate corner.
“In some schools in Madhya Pradesh children still sit according to caste while having their midday meal,” says Ajay Yadav, who works for an NGO working with lower caste and oppressed people in the central state.
There are no efforts from school administrators or teachers to change the practice, he adds.
Ground level workers say prevailing social conditions have a direct bearing on the free lunch program.
In Arizpur village, Bihar, where Rajputs traditionally enslave lower caste Chamars as bonded laborers, their children are ‘trained’ to keep their distance.
“In many schools, kids belonging to both groups don’t sit together for their midday meals,” says S. Sreehari, a postgraduate student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. “Rajput kids bring their own plate whereas Chamars eat from plates given to them at the school.”
Sreehari spent time in the district as part of a national survey on rural development schemes. “During the survey, we came across many people who complained about caste-based discrimination in the midday meal scheme. Most complaints were about special treatment being given to upper caste kids,” he says.
The Indian Council for Social Science Research supported the survey, which was completed a month ago. It has not yet published the results.
The discrimination is not confined to children. In many places people from lower castes are excluded from cooking free lunches, defeating another objective of the program.
A Supreme Court directive in 2004 said low caste and tribal people should be preferred as cooks and helpers to help them get employment.
“There were cases of discrimination against the cooks,” says Shomira Sanyal, a student at a New Delhi college who took part in the survey in Uttar Pradesh. Villagers cited caste-based issues for the removal of one cook, a tribal.
“It is very hard for a tribal woman to get a job as a cook in schools dominated by upper caste kids,” says Ajay Yadav. “They are preferred only in tribal children-dominated schools.”
In Pahadpur district in Bihar, Hindus were opposed to the idea of a Muslim cook and the Muslims claimed that many Hindu kids avoid eating midday meals cooked by a Muslim.
In certain schools, upper caste Brahmin children were served food first, while the others had to wait for their meals.
The Central Human Resources Ministry, responsible for education, has sent several teams to various states in the wake of reports suggesting discrimination. But despite their efforts the discrimination is underlying and continues to frustrate the scheme's aims.