On the weekend, the controversy about the mid-day meals served in schools in several states by Akshaya Patra, a non-governmental organisation run by the International Society For Krishna Consciousness, resurfaced following a heated debate on social media about a report about the programme published in The Hindu.

In the article by journalist Archana Nathan, several school children in Karnataka complained that they did not like the food served they were served because it was bland. The reason for this, the report pointed out, is because Akshaya Patra does not add garlic and onion to the food, despite these ingredients featuring on the menu recommended by the state government.

Akshaya Patra’s decision to exclude these ingredients is in keeping with the religious beliefs of its parent organisation, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

The article led to a storm on Twitter. Mohandas Pai, a member of the board of trustees at Akshaya Patra, described the report a “Leftist hit job”.

The report seems to have split Kasturi and Sons Limited, the company that publishes The Hindu, right in the middle. Two members of the board – N Ram and Malini Parthasarathy – had a public disagreement about the article.

The social media controversy aside, why is there such criticism of Akshaya Patra, despite claims by its promoters that it does great service by providing hygienic meals to lakhs of students across states?

How the scheme evolved

The origins of the midday meal scheme go back to the 1920s, when the then Madras Municipal Corporation in the Madras Presidency introduced the programme for disadvantaged children. The scheme became a major policy initiative in the post-Independence period under Tamil Nadu chief ministers K Kamaraj and MG Ramachandran.

In 1995, the Union government adopted the idea, aiming to encourage children to attend school, reduce dropout rates and fight malnutrition. In 2001, the Supreme Court passed an order in the Right to Food case, mandating that the scheme be extended to all government schools across India.

According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which implements the scheme, more than 9.40 crore children across 11.6 lakh government and government-aided schools were provided one hot cooked meal every day in 2017-’18.

Both the Centre and the state governments contribute funds for the scheme, with the menu differing in each state according to local factors. In some places, the supply of meals is outsourced to contractors appointed by the state governments. Among them is Akshaya Patra, which functions in 12 states. According to its website, it provides mid-day meals to 17 lakh school children in 15,024 government schools and government-aided schools.

There have been several controversies over the years on who should be appointed to serve the meals. Many activists have opposed the model of centralised kitchens, urging governments to allow local organisations such as women self-help groups to supply the meals.

Akshaya Patra is paid by governments

Unlike the assumption made by many social media users, Akshaya Patra does not serve the mid-day meals for free. It has bagged contracts from state governments, like any other NGO serving under the mid-day meal scheme.

According to a report in Business Today, the organisation’s annual report showed that 52% of its funding, about Rs 205 crore, came from 10 state governments, Rs 170 crore from donations and around Rs 15 crore from interest income.

The report said apart from giving the organisation Rs 5.5 as the charges for each meal, the government also allocated it grain from Food Corporation of India.

But Mohandas Pai claimed government funds covered only 60% of the cost of the midday meals served by Akshaya Patra. All other costs, including establishing 43 kitchens across 12 states and the salary cost of 5,500 employees, were borne by the organisation on its own.

Religious beliefs vs nutritional requirements

The central controversy around Akshaya Patra is that it refuses to include onion, garlic and eggs in the food it serves. ISKCON, the organisation to which it belongs, has a religious prerogative of “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”.

Right to Food activists have long criticised the NGO for its position, claiming that it was jeopardising children’s nutritional needs to implement its religious beliefs.

In Odisha, another state where Akshaya Patra serves mid-day meals, the government circumvented this problem partially by asking the school managements to procure eggs and boil them. The cost of the eggs is borne by the Akshaya Patra out of the funds it receives from the state government.

The director of the midday meal scheme in Odisha, Gangadhar Sahoo, acknowledged that without onion and garlic, the food served by Akshaya Patra was “not according to local taste” but said the government had decided to continue the midday meal contract with the organisation because it was “very efficient”.

Karnataka decision

In Karnataka, however, the absence of onion and garlic from the midday meals cooked by Akshaya Patra became a big controversy after the state education department issued a directive in November 2018, asking the organisation to adhere to the state’s nutritional recommendations. The non-profit refused to add onion and garlic, and threatened to pull out of its contractual agreement with the state.

Karnataka government then referred the Akshaya Patra menu to the National Institute of Nutrition for technical assessment of nutrition levels. The institute gave a favourable report, supporting Akshaya Patra’s contention that the meals fulfilled the nutritional norms set by the government.

However, activists have questioned the institute about the methodology used in assessing the meals provided by Akshaya Patra. An open letter signed by 10 organisations and 94 individuals in May said no empirical data was collected on the quantity and quality of ingredients used or amount consumed and amount wasted by children to certify food supplied by Akshaya Patra as nutritionally adequate.

“Religious diktats cannot supersede the application of established principles of the right to food to mid-day meal schemes,” the letter said.

The National Institute of Nutrition, however, has maintained that it followed all regulations while conducting the study.

But as the report in The Hindu pointed out, quite apart from the question of nutrition, a major problem with the Akshaya Patra meals is that school children seem to dislike the food as it lacks the flavour they are used to.

If children are not going to eat the midday meals at school, wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of the scheme?