Religious Indoctrination Through Midday Meals

The Akshaya Patra Foundation (TAPF),  a sister concern of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) – a spiritual organisation, is known for its extensive work in providing midday meals (MDM) to children going to publicly-funded schools. TAPF began its journey in 2000, by serving mid-day meals to 1,500 children across five government schools in Bengaluru. Now it serves over 1.75 million children, in 14,702 schools across 12 states in India every day. In February, TAPF invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to serve the three billionth meal to children in Vrindavan.

Akshay Patra

However, TAPF lately found itself in a major controversy after it refused to sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Karnataka for 2018-19 after the State Food Commission (SFC) officials visited various public schools and suggested addition of onion and garlic for improving the taste of the food served to children. Many activists, researchers, public health professionals and doctors have opposed the stand of TAPF.

The Issue:

TAPF is one of the largest providers of MDM in Karnataka. However, the entire issue began when the CEO of the Zilla Panchayat, Bangalore Urban, refused to sign the MoU with TAPF, citing that the organisation was not providing meals in accordance with the guidelines prescribed by the state government. This was in reference to the inclusion of onions and garlic in its meals, which is mandated by the state government, but not specified under the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD). The district administration also refused to sign the MoU based on the findings of the State Food Commission (SFC).

SFC, headed by Commissioner N. Krishnamurthy, had visited various public schools across the state in order to inspect the quality of MDM served to the children. The visit revealed that the quantity of food served to the children was less than the prescribed standards and the food was unpalatable.

The Commission found that the food was bland and monotonous which had led to children refusing to eat the food. “The food was not at all tasty. Akshaya Patra says that they have met the calorific value prescribed by the government. The problem is that the children are not consuming as many calories simply because the food doesn’t taste good to them,” Krishnamurthy said. Adding further, Krishnamurthy said, “Each child is supposed to be given 150 gm of food per day. But in many schools, especially in Ballari district, the quantity of food being given to the children was less than 150 gm per meal.”

The Commission also found that the milk being served to the children was cold and in some cases the milk was spoilt. This was in violation of the Ksheera Bhagya scheme that mandated distribution of hot milk to school and anganwadi children. Furthermore, eggs which are an extremely rich source of protein, were also not provided by TAPF due to its compliance with the ‘satvik’ diet-  a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature. TAPF has been accused of flouting various guidelines relating to nutritional standards and using its programmes to propagate its religious beliefs among others.

Flouting Guidelines:

Apart from providing a lesser quantity of food and cold milk, TAPF fails to comply with various other guidelines. Firstly, the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) recommends that every children should consume at least three eggs per week. However, TAPF’s meal doesn’t include egg at all.

According to a study conducted by the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) in 2015, onion and garlic increase the bioaccessibility of iron and zinc. It is a known fact that iron deficiency is a huge problem in India and is present among 60-80% of children, especially girls. Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, a public health specialist and researcher in Karnataka, says, “What’s happening everywhere (in India) is the pushing of iron tablets. But that can’t be a long-term solution to the problem. Also, anything nutritional that can improve the absorption of iron should be given, whether it is onion and garlic — several studies have found them to help increase the absorption and bioavailability.” This shows that by providing a ‘satvik’ diet, TAPF has failed to prioritise the nutrition of the children over its religious beliefs.

Further, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India submitted to the MHRD in 2015 found that 187 test samples of meals prepared by TAPF failed to meet the prescribed standards, with negative feedback from 75% children and teachers. TAPF had also utilised lower quantities of food grains than the prescribed 100-150 grams for one meal. Children eating these meals were, on an average, consuming only around 40 grams – far less than what is ideal for their age.

The 2017 revised guidelines for engagement of civil society organisations in the MDM scheme states that “operation of centralised kitchen should be entrusted to CSO/NGO with local presence and familiarity with the needs and culture of the State. The organisation should also make a commitment to abide by the scheme guidelines issued by MHRD, be willing to work with Panchayat Raj institutions and municipal bodies in accordance with relevant guidelines of the state government, should not discriminate in any manner on the basis of religion, caste and and creed and should not use the program for propagation of any religious practice.” By enforcing a purely vegetarian diet without onion and garlic, TAPF is evidently using the MDM program for enforcing its religious beliefs.

The committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 2013 on prevention of untouchability in MDM schemes affirmed that the meal be cooked locally in the school premises, and also raised concerns about “unauthorised and illegal collection of donations or contributions by ISKCON and Akshaya Patra from public in India and abroad” for the government-sponsored scheme.

Notably, in 2017, the Chandigarh education department found food made by ISKCON without onions and garlic was unpalatable for students and the mid-day meal contract was not given to the organisation.

What Protestors Say?

A cluster of NGOs, activists, health experts and researchers have opposed the current way of execution of the MDM scheme through TAPF. They had even written letters to the state government urging it to either seek a firm commitment from TAPF that the prescribed menu including onion and garlic will be followed by the next academic year or find an alternative to TAPF.

Civil Rights organisation Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (People’s Health Movement) and Right to Food Campaign had written a letter to officials expressing their concerns over the recent controversy surrounding TAPF and its provision of MDM. Copies of the letter were submitted to several departments including the Chief Minister’s office urging them to terminate TAPF’s contract.

“Religious diktats cannot supersede the application of established principles of the right to food to mid-day meal schemes. The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign the memorandum for 2018-19. The State government has directed the NGO to include onion and garlic in the food, based on recommendations from the State food Commission, which the NGO is refusing to comply with.

The NGO has also not been providing eggs in the MDM as part of its ‘satvik’ diet.  However, this point has not yet been raised by the government. This standoff highlights the position of rights-based campaigns that mid-day meals should be locally prepared and culturally relevant and not provided through a centralised agency, especially one that applies limits to the food on the basis of religious belief,” states the letter.

Siddharth Joshi, an independent researcher and one of the signatories said that most of the children consuming midday meals are SC/ST and their staple diet largely includes onion and garlic.

“Children require a certain amount of protein intake everyday for normal growth and development. No matter what substitutes may have been provided, eggs are a sure-fire way to ensure that those daily required intake values are met,” states Dr Keerthika V, from Mysore.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, said, “Children should be getting hot milk, but they are getting cold milk. The food also tends to be bland and this too results in several children wasting food and not eating, which defeats the whole purpose of the scheme.”

What TAPF Says?:

Since its inception in 2000, TAPF has been providing meals that doesn’t include onion or garlic. According to their website, the foundation has their religious belief which aligns with “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish, and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement.”

While TAPF fails to provide the basic nutrition to children, it boasts of having region-specific customised meals. “We serve in 12 states across the country. Our menus are tailored to match the local palate with adherence to regional acceptability. It is precisely why our menu is wheat-based in North India and rice-based in South India. Even in states such as Odisha and Assam, our menu is predominantly rice-based in accordance to the local food habits. Regional acceptability is achieved through meticulous menu planning. We serve locally preferred dishes in various locations where we serve mid-day meals. For instance, in Odisha, we serve Dalma, whereas, in Gujarat, we serve Dal khichdi and Thepla,” said Shri Madhu Pandit Dasa, Chairman.

Denying the allegations that their meals were flouting the MHRD guidelines, Naveena Neerada Dasa, head of strategic communications and projects at TAPF, said, “We would like to clarify that our freshly cooked meals are in compliance with the nutritional norms prescribed by the MHRD. It is our constant endeavour to contribute to the government’s efforts in promoting good health and nutrition amongst children, which is essential for their holistic growth and development.” Adding further, Dasa said, “Akshaya Patra is committed to serve quality, hygienic and nutritious food to school children everyday and implement Akshara Dasoha, the flagship midday meal programme of the Karnataka government.”
Alleging that the opposition by officials to their program was due to some ‘vested interest’, foundation trustee and former Infosys CFO, Mohandas Pai, said “Akshaya Patra Foundation has been feeding midday meals as per union government’s standards. Now it is obvious that some officials under the influence of vested interests are playing mischief for reasons all known.” Saying that their meals were in line with their principles of a ‘satvik’ diet, Pai sought the intervention of Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy to resolve the issue.

Political Angle:

Predictably, this controversy has taken a political turn. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and actress Malavika Avinash slammed the government for issuing the direction to include onion and garlic, saying it was an “uncalled” intervention.

“After all these years of appreciation for the foundation’s food, it was quite surprising to see the JDS-Congress government getting into the nitty-gritty of the ingredients going into the menu”, Malavika said. Adding further, she said, “Since when did the government start worrying about the ingredients that are used in satvik cooking as long as food is tasty and maintains the standards of nutrition that are prescribed by the Centre. This is completely uncalled for, surprising and quite objectionable.” 

It seems that Malavika and her party have failed to check the data on the nutritional standards of the TAPF meal. Instead, it has taken this as an opportunity to appease the upper caste Brahmins, who do not eat non-vegetarian food including eggs, by extending its support to TAPF.

Latest Developments:

Putting an end to an argument that was raised earlier, the Karnataka state government signed a MoU with TAPF in March 2019 despite the foundation’s refusal to use onion and garlic in MDM served to students in government schools.
“Akshaya Patra Foundation refused to include onion and garlic. We could not make alternative arrangements to provide food, and had to yield,” an official told, adding that the issue is yet to be resolved.

The decision of the state government of not terminating TAPF’s contract comes after the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) submitted a report in favour of TAPF. The report appears to be entirely biased without visiting a single school or talking to a single student. One of the claim made by NIN is, “The nutritive values of menus with ingredients used in the mentioned amounts, certainly meet and often exceed the prescribed energy (Kcal) and protein requirements prescribed by MHRD for the MDM.” However, the NIN has come to this conclusion sheerly on the basis of the menu prepared by TAPF without going to the schools and checking the ground-reality.

A point-by-point rebuttal to the NIN report can be viewed here.

The Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) refused to comment on most of the questions regarding nutritional adequacy, taste, diversity, safety and hygiene etc of the food being supplied by TAPF in absence of a systematic empirical study.

Siddharth Joshi, an independent researcher in Bengaluru, has drafted an open letter to NIN calling for the withdrawal of its unscientific report, pending a systematic field evaluation.

The Implication:

This entire issue evidently has a religious angle which has even been acknowledged by TAPF itself. It seems nothing less than religious indoctrination!

The silent acceptance of the conditions of the TAPF without considering its implications on the already poorly-nourished children is just unacceptable. Instead of advocating for child rights, the BJP government has also refrained from demanding any action for the benefit of the children. Contrarily, it has supported the stand of TAPF and objected to the initial interventions by the SFC.

BJP’s stand is somewhere predictable, considering its own ideology that is based on the principles of Hindutva. 

It is significant to note that a study by IndiaSpend found that most of the BJP-ruled states were resistant to eggs in MDM. It found that:

  • Only five of the 19 states governed by BJP or their allies (15 have BJP chief ministers) give eggs to children;
  • Some non-BJP states too (Punjab, Mizoram and Delhi) do not provide eggs in MDM, mainly due to lack of resources than religious or cultural sentiments. However, BJP states are most likely to resist the inclusion of eggs for reasons related to the sentiments of vegetarians.

Officials in BJP governed states interviewed by IndiaSpend said they were concerned about offending the sentiments of vegetarians. “In Gujarat, most of the population is vegetarian,” said RG Trivedi, commissioner (mid-day meal scheme) in Gujarat. “Additionally, we provide pulses daily in mid-day meals as protein-rich food, hence we don’t serve eggs.”

Though religious organisations have the right to promote or oppose certain food beliefs, this cannot be a justification while providing MDM to children, belonging to different faiths, that also in government schools. Such instances contradict a secular government’s mandate as well as nutritional guidelines by scientific bodies like the NIN and the Indian Academy of Pediatrics. It also infringes the food rights of majority of children attending government schools who are often from marginalised communities and suffer poor nutrition.

Food is a basic human need. However, the current top-down approach for what food communities should receive from supplementary programmes is both paternalistic and creates major bottlenecks in the success of these programmes.
Such religious indoctrination in the name of welfare and upliftment is not only unjustifiable but also unconstitutional.

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