Midday Meal Controversy Occupies Centre Stage in Assam Politics
Education minister offers an explanation for the move and claims that the protests are backed by vested interest; CITU suspects anomalies in allotting the work to NGOs
The government has at last chastened down somewhat with education minister Siddartha Bhattacharya, in a face-saving exercise, put up a brave front alleging that the ‘midday meal controversy’ is the creation of vested interests of a certain section of people.
The protest, which engulfed his residence on the arterial GS Road, was against the government move of handing over the charge for distribution of midday meals in schools to NGOs. It left the whole city stranded and brought the issue to the centre stage of political discourse in the state.
Bhattacharya, who is facing flak from various quarters, told G Plus that the protests are backed by people with vested interests.
Talking to G Plus, Bhattacharya said, “Anomalies by school authorities in midday meals is not new, and now if the NGOs serve midday meal, many people will not be able to siphon off the money which is to be spent only on providing nutritious food to children.”
Talking about allegations of anomalies in the process of selection of NGOs and the questions on the quality of the food served, the minister said that an enquiry has already been ordered.
Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal recently directed principal secretary of food and civil supplies and consumer affairs department, Biswaranjan Samal, to conduct an inquiry into the allegations of the meals being of poor quality and thereafter, to submit a report within a month. He also instructed to go back to the previous arrangement of mid day meals being provided by school authorities instead of NGOs till the enquiry is complete.
Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) has alleged that the government has failed to explain why such a decision was taken.
General Secretary of CITU, Tapan Sharma, talking to G Plus said, “There must have been a huge amount of commission calculation with the NGOs before the work was allotted to them. Else why has the government not explained the reason for engaging the NGOs for the work till now?”
Sharma also alleged that the poorest people of the society are getting affected with such a move as the people get only Rs 1,000 per month for preparing food for the children.
Countering the allegations the education minister said that the decision was taken by the Centre after various researches and as the education is handled by the state government, the Assam government received a notice from the Centre in 2017 to engage NGOs for the purpose. Many states have already implemented the idea and many states are taking the help of NGOs even before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed government in the centre.
He explained that since 2015 Akshaya Patra has been distributing midday meals in Kamrup (Metro) and they have been doing a very decent job.
He said that in 2017 after receiving the Centre’s notice, a committee was formed and after thorough study it was decided that NGOs should be involved. Accordingly, through expression of interest some NGOs were involved in 25% areas of Assam.
Now the vested interests are staging protests and trying to prove wrongly that the quality of food is not good. Regarding reports of Tinsukia school children getting sick, he said it is a story that has been wrongly “cooked.” He said in Hojai the vested interests had poured excess water in the dal and similar activities are going on across the state.
He lastly claimed that the enquiry will disclose all the facts soon.
Meanwhile, a school headmaster, talking to G Plus claimed that it is difficult to siphon off money as Rs 4.15 is given per student per day. Even the menu is decided by the government. Two days in a week Khichdi has to be served, two days dal, vegetables and rice and two days it has to be paneer or egg. It is impossible to siphon off money with such a menu these days, he added.