The 12th anniversary special edition of Outlook news magazine features the story "Round, Square and Oval" about the mid-day meal programme for school children in Hyderabad. Madhavi Tata brings out the success of the programme in a manner that we all realize "what one wholesome meal a day can do to a child's life".
The story reminds me of the mid-day meal programme of my primary-school days in Kerala. Palluvelil bhagom L.P.S was a government school, where most children in the locality did their primary schooling. They comprised of children from poor and middle class families in the village. The school had classes up to 5th standard and had reasonably good buildings and premises. There was a public park nearby where a rickety seesaw and a slider were available for the kids to play. The main attraction of the park was a valve radio, which was housed in a small room. The room was so small that it hardly accommodated the valve radio, its stand and a switchboard. The park administrator (a villager who lived nearby) operated the radio in the evenings. The evening news in All India Radio (AIR) generated a lot of heated arguments among the listeners, which often led to small altercations as they had distinct political identities as Marxists or Congress men. I know, I am being out of line with the subject here. I just recalled the school and its premises.
The main attraction for most under-privileged children in the village to attend school was the mid-day meal programme. The meal comprised of Upma, prepared from American bulgar wheat. Though Keralites preferred rice to wheat, most children found the mid-day meal programme an inspiration and encouragement. An old lady, employed by the school, prepared the food in an old shed with thatched roof. The old lady was assisted by one of the school children for cleaning the utensils and supplying the firewood. His name was Ajayan, and he was my classmate. The lady never cared about cooking well. Often the food was undercooked or overcooked and complaints were common. Later, Ajayan took over the cooking part too from the lady, and he found this a previlege that no other kid enjoyed. No doubt, the lady enjoyed the company too.
It was lunch time and the children were all rushing out to the school veranda where the food was served. The children would sit in two lines, one facing the other. They would spread the banana or lotus leaves which they brought from home on which the teachers would serve the food. Those who forgot to carry a banana leaf, would tear a page from their text book and use it instead. The aroma from hot Upma mixed with the smell of banana leaves would fill up the area. A large number of crows and dogs would be waiting outside to feed on the remains. Many a times, a clever crow would snatch at a not-so-careful child's leaf. Children, teachers, dogs and crows - the lunch time was a tumultuous affair.
After lower primary, Ajayan and I both joined Thycattussery SMSJ School. The mid-day meal programme was not available at Upper Primary School level. During lunch-time, when the more affluent ones were having lunch, Ajayan and many others would wander about the school premises with an empty stomach gambling with cashew nuts and marbles. Very often these games resulted in quarrels amongst them and punishments by teachers. Many teachers considered these children a menace and wanted to get rid of.
Rosamma teacher (name changed), who had invented her own ways of disciplining the children (in fact every other teacher had), employed an innovative method to discipline Ajayan. One day she found Ajayan dozing in the back-row. She commanded him to get out and stand at the door. He did so. The next day, thinking the punishment was over, Ajayan occupied his seat. But, when she saw him sitting in the class, she was furious and shouted that she had not asked him to come in again. She then instructed him to stand outside the door everyday during her class until such time she told him to sit again. So everyday, when Rosamma teacher entered the class, Ajayan would go out and stand outside the door during the entire period. This went on for about three weeks and she never gave him permission to sit in her class. Eventually, he dropped out and no one ever saw him in the school again.
Most were not as unlucky as Ajayan. Many had completed graduation and post-graduation, out of them some work today in high positions. They benefited from that mid-day meal programme of the 70s, which gave them the initial boost, inspiration and motivation that were necessary at a time when poverty and inequality kept children away from school.