The story so far: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin on Thursday, at the Madurai Corporation Primary School Aathimoolam II in Simmakal, Madurai, launched the Chief Minister’s Breakfast Scheme for students of Class I to V in government schools. The scheme covers around 1.14 lakh students in 1,545 schools which include 417 municipal corporation schools, 163 municipality schools and 728 taluk and village panchayat-level schools. A sum of ₹33.56 crore has been set apart for the scheme. The inauguration of the scheme marks an important milestone in the State’s history of providing free meals to school students.
In November 1920, the Madras (now Chennai) Corporation Council approved a proposal for providing tiffin to the students of a Corporation School at Thousand Lights at a cost not exceeding one anna per student per day. P. Theagaraya Chetty, the then President of the Corporation (the modern-day equivalent of which is Mayor) and one of the stalwarts of the Justice Party, said the boys studying at the school were poor, which affected the strength of the institution ‘greatly’. The scheme, which was extended to four more schools and facilitated higher enrollment of students, suffered a setback in 1925 when the British government disallowed the expenditure on the supply of mid-day meals to students from the Elementary Education Fund. It was revived two years later, benefitting around 1,000 poor students in 25 schools.
The concept saw a State-wide application in 1956 when the then Chief Minister K. Kamaraj decided to provide free noon meal to poor children in all primary schools across the State. The Budget for 1956-57 contained a provision for supplying mid-day meals to schoolchildren for 200 days a year, initially covering 65,000 students in 1,300 feeding centres.
In July 1982, it was left to the then Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran to extend the programme to children in the 2-5 age group in Anganwadis and those in 5-9 age group in primary schools in rural areas. Subsequently, the scheme — now called Puratchi Thalaivar M.G.R. Nutritious Meal Programme — was extended to urban areas as well. Since September 1984, students of standards VI to X have been covered under the scheme.
Over the years, there have been improvements to the programme. M. Karunanidhi, as Chief Minister during the short-lived Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Ministry (1989-91), introduced the provision of boiled eggs once every fortnight, starting June 1989. His successor, Jayalalithaa, in March 2013, extended the scheme by including variety meals along with masala eggs as per the children’s choice.
As of now, there are nearly 46.7 lakh beneficiaries spread over 43,190 nutritious meal centres. This includes around 3,500 students of National Child Labour Project (NCLP) special schools. The State budget for 2022-23 has provided around ₹2,077 crore for the nutritious meal programme.
Besides, as a consequence of the collaborative implementation of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the nutritious meal programme, around 15.8 lakh children in the age group of 2+ to 5+ years receive nutritious meals.
After the improved version of the mid-day meal scheme in 1982, the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) at primary level (standards I to V) went up by 10% during July-September, 1982 as compared to the corresponding period in 1981.
The rise in boys’ enrollment was 12% and in the case of girls, 7%, according to a publication brought out by the Tamil Nadu government on the occasion of the launch of the Chief Minister’s Breakfast Scheme.
Likewise, attendance during July-September 1982 rose by 33% over the previous year’s figure.
Kamaraj – An Era (2008), a biography authored by senior Congress functionary A. Gopanna, states that after the inauguration of the mid-day meal scheme in 1956, the number of primary schools went up from 15,800 in 1957 to 29,000 in 1962.
Anaemia is a major health problem in Tamil Nadu, especially among women and children, says the 2019-21 National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5’s report. From 50% during the period of the 2015-16 NFHS-4, the prevalence of anaemia in children now went up to 57%. This and many other health issues can be addressed through the combined efforts of the departments of School Education, Public Health and Social Welfare and Women Empowerment.
Based on expert advice, those in charge of the implementation of the ICDS and the nutritious meal programme can enhance the component of nutrition to those children having specific problems. The latest Breakfast Scheme is a step in this direction.
Besides, a continuous and rigorous review of the progress of the scheme and nutritious meal programme should be carried out in a sustained manner, says a senior government official.