A Calmer You, by Sonal Kalra: How tasty is your meal, by the way?
I have just started my annual leave and was going to skip writing the column this week as a mark of respect for laziness, but then I saw scientist-author Anand Ranganathan’s tweet urging people to donate to Akshaya Patra. It comes on the heels of several posts that I’ve seen on social media in the last few days, either for or against Akshaya Patra. My natural propensity to stay from all things controversial, and my limited mental faculties making me decide that neither Akshay Kumar nor Sambit Patra require my financial help in any way, had kept me from even reading up on it. But Anand doesn’t usually say things sans logic and merely one tweet from him had made over 500 people donate in a matter of hours. So I did my JCB Ki Khudayi into the controversy, and now sharing my two bits of understanding here for those who may, like me, be still wondering what the fuss is about.
In a nutshell, the whole controversy explains something very intrinsic about us: Hum khud achha kaam karenge nahi. Koi aur karega toh usmey kamiyan nikaalna toh vaise bhi hamara birthright hai. So this non-government-organisation , Akshaya Patra, provides free meals to 1.8 million children every day across 15,000 government schools in 12 Indian states, under the mid-day meal scheme. It’s the world’s largest school lunch programme.
Recently, the publication, The Hindu, carried an article pointing out that in one of the states, Karnataka, kids are unhappy with the taste of the meals since no onion or garlic is used in the preparation (the NGO follows the Ayurveda prescribed onion-garlic free system of cooking, and is run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness which also prohibits use of
non-vegetarian as well as onion, garlic in meals), and are hence eating less.
The article expectedly sparked off a debate. On one side, there is the view that kids should be given meals in alignment with their taste-preferences and that religious beliefs of the organization running the kitchen can’t be a deciding factor on what they won’t serve, especially given the fact that the NGO gets substantial government grant and free grains to run the programme. On the other, there is the undisputable argument that Akshaya Patra’s meals are hygienically prepared in ISO-certified kitchens, are highly nutritious, and way better in dietary value as well as taste when compared to most fare served in school canteens not just in India but across the world. And while sticking to its fundamental policies, the NGO has been accommodative of additions or changes – a case in point being the Orissa government’s demand that eggs be included in the meals, which made Akshaya Patra agree that it will pay for the eggs as long as another agency directly delivers it and it doesn’t go from their kitchens.
Both the above arguments may have their merits, but the larger problem is that we love debating problems, not solutions. Here are my five questions with regards to this debate:
1. Has there been a properly-conducted research to support the argument that a majority of children dislike the taste of the mid-day meal being served to them? If yes, it definitely deserves more attention than anecdotal objections.
2. What is the profile of the people debating this issue so fiercely, from both sides?
If most of them are self-appointed intellectuals, social commentators, activists supporting/opposing it on the basis of ideological beliefs, or specialised debaters for generalised topics on television/social media, then they should take a back seat, as their part of the deed is done. The ones to take over now should be nutrition experts, qualified behavioural analysts and food composition auditors. Base decisions on analysis, not the level of outrage, especially when it deals with matters that matter to the growth of our kids.
3. Are there stakeholders with vested interests who would benefit from toppling over a programme smoothly running for several years? Similarly, are there those who could be imposing ideology on the back of a popular, charitable initiative with a mammoth reach. Both are possibilities. Who plans to look into these before the debate goes off prime time?
4. Do we have alternatives to suggest before suggesting that something of this magnitude be discontinued or altered? I, frankly, don’t care if the children get to eat onion, garlic from tomorrow or not. Are we in a position to assure that 1.8 million of them will indeed not be made to miss even a single meal because the adults have decided to get busy debating?
5. Is the government in question looking into the points raised in the original article and evaluating whether the terms of their contract with the NGO are under any violation? And if they are, then why can’t we leave them to
do so in peace and reach an agreement according to the law, with the intent to secure what is scientifically, nutritionally and practically best for the kids?
On a lighter note, it apparently was the World Poha Day two days back. In good fun, the Punjabi me and the Assamese cook in my kitchen tried our hand at poha, and turned up with an unnamed mess of a dish that offended the very core of the Proud Poha Warriors in Indore. Before we could deal with the delicious trolling coming our way for putting certain ingredients, the poha warriors of Bhopal and Jabalpur joined the debate with their own versions of what should or shouldn’t be put in the preparation. I said a prayer of thanks that poha isn’t a part of the Akshaya Patra menu (or is it?) The arguments could’ve led to war. By the way, everyone’s version was different. Everyone was right. That’s what taste is. Subjective, and beautiful in diversity.
Sonal Kalra has decided to patent her version of Poha, and call it Loha – for it was difficult to chew. Is there an NGO that would adopt it for a meal programme. Loha has high iron content. Mail your feedback at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @sonalkalra.