Co-authored by Evita Rodrigues and Shantanu Kishwar 

A recent article by The Hindu has triggered controversy surrounding the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF), particularly regarding their involvement in Karnataka’s midday meal (MDM) scheme. Polarized opinions have been making the rounds on social media, and the debate seems to have devolved into a clash of ideologies and anecdotes instead of an analysis based on concrete and relevant evidence.

Taking a cue from states like Tamil Nadu (1962), the midday meal scheme (MDM) was adopted as a Central Government scheme (1995) with a view to enhance nutrition levels, improve school enrolment, attendance and decrease dropout rates. APF has become a key contributor to the scheme in recent years and operates the largest mid-day meal programme in the world, feeding 1.76 million children across 12 states in the country. At the heart of the controversy are reports of food wastage in schools in two districts of Karnataka fed by APF. Blame was placed on the organisation’s refusal to use onions, garlic, and eggs in their food, thereby allegedly compromising both taste and nutrition. APF does not use them as they violate the religious principles of its parent organisation, ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). APF claims to account for the food’s nutritional requirements and taste with substitute ingredients.

The scope of allegations has since broadened. Critics assert that local ingredients which students are accustomed to are not being used, that decentralization of kitchens in the MDM scheme could yield better results, and that Akshaya Patra is forcing its religious principles through its food, violating the secular ethos of state-sponsored programmes.

Scrutinizing the Evidence

Most criticism has been based on three sources of evidence thus far; 1) a 2018 report by the Karnataka State Food Commission released that observed food wastage in schools because students did not find it palatable; 2) a 2013 review meeting of the scheme that found Bangalore (urban) and Dharwad were lagging behind others (which they continued to do as per a 2017-18 report); and 3) a report by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), which stated that Akshaya Patra’s meals satisfied nutritional requirements despite the absence of garlic and onions, (critics point out that this was not based on food samples but a list of ingredients Akshaya Patra claimed to use).

The references made in recently published articles surveyed have been vague for the most part (the full list can be accessed at the end of this article). Little or no information is available as to how the conclusions regarding taste and/or nutritional value were arrived at. When journalists have attempted to investigate claims first hand, only anecdotal evidence from a few students in select schools is provided. Within this extremely limited sample, no cursory surveys have been done to establish what percentage of students are unhappy with the food. Many opinions have used the shaky foundations of the NIN report as if it were conclusive proof that poor-quality food is being served, instead of conducting proper tests to offer as counter-evidence.

Most perplexingly, the root problem of the controversy has been ignored in most ensuing commentary. Issues with food were identified in two districts served by Akshaya Patra while it operates in five districts in Karnataka and numerous others across India.

This makes the two problem-districts exceptions to an otherwise well-functioning organisation, and solutions offered should focus on why they lag behind and how this can be rectified. Even the outpouring of anecdotes in favour of Akshaya Patra serve no purpose here; how the organisation fares in the rest of the country has little relevance to possible problems with food in these specific districts.

The Fault in our Secularism

Food habits are a contentious issue in India given their associations with communal and religious identities. The MDM scheme has been involved in controversies of this nature before, most commonly regarding the provision of eggs to children. In a secular country, for state operations to subscribe to the preferences of any one particular community is incorrect, which explains the opposition to the present situation in Karnataka. However, things are not clear-cut here, because the religious sentiments of a private organisation are being challenged, not a state-owned entity.

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Admittedly, guidelines issued by the MHRD categorically state that organisations “should not use the [midday meal] programme for propagation of any religious practice”. Akshaya Patra is within its rights to claim that it is following its principles and not propagating them. Propagation implies actively convincing people to follow particular beliefs, which it doesn’t seem to be doing. The sattvik diet does have links with purity and caste, but to place the burden of this on the shoulders of APF presently is unfair, since they do not practice discrimination, impose this as a larger lifestyle choice on students, or stand in the way of them consuming non-sattvik foods otherwise.

There have been instances where certain compromises have been reached. In November 2018, the Odisha government insisted that APF include eggs in their meals, which they refused to do. However, APF  arranged for an alternate supply of eggs using the state funds allocated for this purpose, denting allegations of propagating/enforcing their beliefs. If the state government is willing, such an arrangement can likely be replicated in Karnataka to increase the nutritive value of the meals.

However, even if this model was replicated in Karnataka, issues with onion and garlic would remain, creating a Catch-22 situation. A secular state cannot force a private organisation to act against its beliefs, but also must ensure the equal treatment of all religions. Right now, while the State looks the other way, Akshaya Patra’s culinary practices, related to legacies of purity and caste, are unwittingly being applied to millions of children.

Akshaya Patra does not bear responsibility for these legacies, but the government must be questioned about why it contracted them in the first place, knowing the restrictions they came with.

 Whose Responsibility is the Midday Meal Scheme Anyway?

Only mentioned briefly in debates but essential for the MDM programme is structuring a system of kitchens and food delivery mechanisms to ensure children receive good food. Two models are typically followed across the country: the centralized model of Akshaya Patra, where food is cooked in a central kitchen and dispatched sent to different schools; and a decentralized model such as in Tamil Nadu where food is prepared in schools or by self-help groups nearby.

It’s true that Akshaya Patra’s model has certain advantages. Ensuring consistency of food quality in centralized kitchens is easier, and having a single provider allows for clear accountability and minimal bureaucratization. Crucially, with limited resources, Akshaya Patra achieves economies of scale that decentralized kitchens cannot. Additionally, APF supplements State-allocated funds with donations it receives, adding valuable resources that might be otherwise unavailable.

In an interview with The Bastion, Right to Food activist and public health doctor Dr. Sylvia Karpargam recommended decentralizing the system in Karnataka, claiming that the state has effectively abdicated responsibility by outsourcing work to centralized providers like Akshaya Patra. If well organised, decentralization could encourage community participation (through social audits, wherein the State and public jointly monitor the project), cater to local tastes, prevent food spoilage, generate local employment, and potentially increase transparency at a local level. However, it would require greater financial investment, as well as strict monitoring to ensure quality, not easy given the scale of operations.

Assuming that the efficient provision of quality food and a State-run decentralized system are mutually exclusive is flawed, because it isn’t backed up by data one way or another. Meaningful conclusions both for public debate and policy decisions can only be arrived at through a systematic study comparing both models across time and space.

The Way Forward

Malnutrition amongst children is one of the biggest challenges facing India today, and how it is dealt with will have long-term consequences for the social and economic future of the country. Midday meals, therefore, become crucial in securing the healthy futures of millions of Indian children. The provision of nutritious food to children must remain the foremost priority of the programme and debates surrounding it.

This doesn’t mean that concerns about taste and preferences be disregarded and a beggars-can’t-be-choosers mentality is adopted, as some have suggested on social media. These meals are a right, not an act of charity. Akshaya Patra is doing commendable work as part of the programme and has become one of the largest stakeholders in its functioning, but this doesn’t grant them immunity from criticism or make them the only viable option. Active vigilance from the state and civil society is essential to ensure the longevity of operations, whether or not Akshaya Patra is involved.

With the right to criticise comes the responsibility to do so fairly. Critique must be well thought out and done with the intent of bettering the MDM scheme, not maligning an organisation, or unreservedly celebrating it. Currently, the dearth of concrete data, problematic evidence and faulty arguments made have hampered any sort of meaningful exchange. Though anecdotes and ideology might make for catchy headlines and grab eyeballs, their contribution to solving one of the most pressing policy problems in the country remains woefully limited.

List of articles surrounding the APF controversy referred to.

Featured Image: Akshaya Patra Foundation via Pixabay




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