The Supreme Court in India has fixed January 2005 as the deadline for all states to provide a midday meal in school for children upto class V. The intention behind this midday meal scheme is two-fold. To provide the children from poorer communities with atleast one nutritious meal and thereby motivate these children to attend school and increase attendance.
True, the implementation of this scheme is a mammoth task in terms of the sheer logistics. But if it can be done, it would be revolutionary and most beneficial for atleast 40% of India's children who are malnourished due to poverty.
The directive also states that the responsibility of cooking these meals should be given to women from backward classes and widows, who should be paid a retainer. Again the intention is noble though the money being offered is really a paltry sum. (For example in Orissa it is around Rs. 200 per month, which is roughly USD4.5!)
As governments begin to implement the scheme in the various states, one of the teething problems seen to emerge is the social standing of the cooks. Across various regions in India, from West Bengal through Orissa to Karnataka, there have been cases where upper caste parents have forbidden their children to partake of the midday meal since they have been cooked by the 'untouchables'.
What is very upsetting is how the issue of untouchability still pervades through India in this day and age. One school in West Bengal 'averted trouble' by employing a head cook from the upper caste (she would do the actual cooking) who would be assisted by 2 lower caste women (who would help with the preparations but would not actually stir the ladle).
However, from amongst the children comes a ray of hope. Dr. A.R. Vasavi of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), cites an interesting case in The Hindu.
"An SDMC member in North Karnataka, who was particular about who cooked the meal for his son, had to relent when his child insisted that he wanted to have lunch with his friends."
I sometimes wonder why adults cannot see that which is so simple in a child's eye. After all... it is just "a lunch with friends" isn't it?