More than 300 million people are affected by drought of varying intensity in ten states of the country. Given the scale of the crisis, the Supreme Court last week instructed governments of drought-hit states to continue providing mid-day meals to school children even during summer holidays.

Under the centrally-sponsored mid day meal scheme, one hot cooked meal is served every day to children studying in classes I to VIII of government and government-aided schools. The scheme covers 10.2 crore children studying in 11.5 lakh government-run and government-aided schools. With drought shrinking the availability of food and work, the mid-day scheme could help provide some nutritional support to children, at least the ones who are enrolled in schools, and have not migrated with their parents.

But Jharkhand, one of India's poorest states, has failed to implement the orders. The state declared drought in all 24 districts in December 2015. But it failed to submit a proposal to the Centre asking for additional funds to continue the scheme.

Said Ankita Aggarwal, an activist with the state’s Right to Food Campaign: “All drought-affected states that declared a drought last year submitted their proposals in January 2016 for additional funds for continuing midday meals through summer vacations, only Jharkhand failed to do this.”

Nine states have submitted proposals to cover 2.5 crore children in 228 drought affected districts. Till May 4, the central government had released Rs 211.6 crore for this.

Failure to act timely

The Supreme Court gave instructions to both the central and state governments while hearing a petition filed by Swaraj Abhiyan, a political campaign.

Right to Food campaign activists say state governments did not need to wait for orders from the court, or approval from the centre.

They pointed out that under an existing order of 2004 of the Supreme Court in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties versus Union of India case, states do not have to even wait for approval from the central government to continue school meals during summer vacations during a crisis like the current drought. The scheme guidelines framed in 2006 allow states to continue providing meals to children enrolled in schools during summer vacations in areas where drought has been notified.

Under these guidelines, nine states – Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Telangana, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh – proposed mid day meals to be served during summer vacations in their districts notified as drought-affected in 2015. Till May 4, Ministry of Human Resource Development's Approval Board of the Mid Day Meal Scheme had sanctioned Rs 726.3 crore, with the central assistance component as 60%, Rs 468.8 crore.

To continue the scheme during the summer vacation, following the routine practice, grains will be supplied to states free of cost by the Food Corporation of India and the center and states will bear the cooking and salary expenses at the rate of Rs 3.86 per child in classes I to V, and Rs 5.78 for children studying in secondary schools are shared by the center and states on 60:40 basis (90:10 for north eastern states).

Activists said that Jharkhand had failed to submit a proposal in time even though it declared a drought all over the state on December 10 last year.

Jharkhand government officials said that the government is planning to re-start school meals during summer vacations “at the earliest.” Director (Mid Day Meals) Jasjit Singh told the Times of India that the delay was a result of schools being shut earlier than usual on May 8 because of a heat-wave in the state. He said because of this, the government had not been able to plan the programme in advance at the start of school vacations.

Agarwal, the activist with Right to Food Campaign pointed out that even if the state government was to notify this provision this week, half of summer vacations were already over while the poorest families in the state continued to be in distress. "Jharkhand government's failure to continue children's school meals is in violation of Supreme Court's orders of 2004," she said.

Funds shrinking

In the Swaraj Abhiyan petition in the Supreme Court in November, one of ten prayers was that the mid-day meal scheme should continue during the summer vacation period in schools so that children are not deprived of their meals. Additionally, the petitioners had asked that children affected by the drought should be provided one egg or 200 gram of milk per day (six days a week) under the school meals programme.

The court directed the government to extend the meals during the summer vacation period in schools and said the central government must pass any pending orders on this immediately. It directed Bihar, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to within a month, provide eggs, or milk or any other nutritional substitute for children under the scheme on “preferably five days in a week or at least three days in a week”. Uttar Pradesh had provided mid-day meals during summer vacations in 58 districts during 2015.

“Keeping in mind the children of this country, financial constraints shall not be an excuse for not complying with this direction,” states the order. "It is a sad commentary that we should have to say this but we need to in the interest of the children of our country."

Five states – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Telangana – already provide either eggs, or milk one to three times per week.

Food security experts, however, pointed out that besides states like Jharkhand dragging their feet over this, there was a need for the central government to urgently revise the budget for the scheme in light of the court orders. They said that since 2014-'15, the allocation for the scheme had stagnated as it was not indexed to inflation.

“It is just not possible to provide milk, eggs and other nutritional food stuff as directed by the Supreme Court, with the current budget,” said Biraj Patnaik, an advisor to the Supreme Court on food security issues. “While the sanctioned amount will be just about enough to sustain the current programme, it is less than half of what is required if the Supreme Court orders are to be followed in letter and spirit.”