If your child can go from a ‘near zero’ learning ability to getting 95 per cent in mathematics and from a state of malnutrition to WHO-approved standards of health, chances are that you will not find the Naxal ideology all that attractive. I was in the Naxal heartland of Bastar to review the learning skills of children in 300 schools who were being educated by the Naandi Foundation when news came that our trucks carrying mid-day meals to poor children had been burnt in Hyderabad by the Telangana agitators. The food was taken out and thrown away and our canisters burnt.
That day, 3,000 children waited for their only meal of the day that never came while protesters pressed on with their violent cause. I concur with the view that everyone has the right to express their demands. But should it be done at the cost of our children, the face of our future? For 1 million children across four states, the only meal they get is the one supplied by our mid-day meal scheme.
Often, governments supply meals to children that are, in effect, devoid of any nutrition. We have taken the trouble to go into what a growing child needs and added fortified rice, soya milk and eggs so vital to a child’s development. The other thing that we have focused on is the child’s taste, not surprisingly many children love the taste of pickles that we supply with the food.
It is a shame that these agitations are never about issues like hunger and malnutrition that cut short the lives of many of our children or compromise the quality of their lives. The impressive growth rates will continue and better themselves. But the figures are worrying. Eight million children are severely malnourished. This means they will not see their fifth birthday.
Let us not compare ourselves with other countries. The point is that we should not have a single child dying for want of food, even going to bed hungry one night. This is a negation of democracy. The lamentable fact is that such situations can be avoided so easily and simply. While our ministers bicker over cooked meals and packaged ones, our children fall between the cracks.
To give a child a hot meal once a day takes so little time and effort that I fail to understand why this is not a much greater priority. The prime minister himself called the issue of child hunger a ‘national shame’.
One argument being used for dividing Andhra Pradesh is that it will be easier to contain the Naxal menace. The Naxals have only filled the vacuum left by the State and NGOs, which have failed to provide the basics to people.
I would be so much more reassured if those agitating for smaller states could provide us with a vision document on how governance will impact on children. But as things stand, such agitations seem to be by politicians, for politicians and of politicians. In all this, the fact that millions of children depend on good government for survival seems lost. Even for NGOs, it is vital to have supportive governments so that we can function in our role of supplementing the state. The destruction of food meant for children inspires little confidence. How do you explain to a child that an agitation for an objective that lies in the distant future deprived her of her only meal of the day? That it would take some days for those providing food to recover from their losses and get things back on track? That NGOs have to be careful not to offend any political formation so that they can reach their food to the needy on time?
Interestingly, the destruction of the food trucks got scant mention in the papers. The focus was on the political future of a state.
Manoj Kumar is CEO, Naandi Foundation, Hyderabad and is a core member of the Citizen’s Alliance against Malnutrition
The views expressed by the author are personal