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Patna HC took suo moto cognizance of a news item titled, “School shut, no mid-day meal, children in Bihar village back to work selling scrap”, issued necessary directions to the State

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This Court took suo moto cognizance of a news item titled, “School shut, no mid-day meal, children in Bihar village back to work selling scrap” published in the Indian Express, Delhi Edition, dated July 6, 2020. The news article highlighted an issue of public importance and relevance like adequate nutrition and how children are being kept away from schools and Anganwadi centres to due to the spread of COVID 19.

On July 6, 2020, learned advocate, was appointed as amicus curiae. The State filed an affidavit assigning reasons for shutting down the educational institutions and discontinuing the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. The primary reason given was to prevent the spread ofCovid-19.

The following issues arise for this Court’s consideration:

  1. Whether the State is fulfilling its statutory and constitutional mandate of providing food and nutritional security to children who have been adversely impacted by the closure of schools and Anganwadi centres due to the Covid-19?
  2. What measures can be undertaken to ensure that the right to education of children in the State is not adversely impacted during this time, and to prevent school children from indulging in begging and garbage collection?

CHILD’S RIGHT TO FOOD- IN THE TIMES OF PANDEMIC, COVIC-19

  • Children have two requirements. First, is to keep their mind and body occupied with some engaging activity and second, to keep their stomachs fed. Mid-Day Meal Scheme is a flagship programme of the Government of India, specifically targeting both these requirements.
  • The learned amicus curiae brought to our attention that 12 Lakh schools and close to 12 Crore children across the country are beneficiaries of this Scheme, making it the largest school feeding programme in the world. The Mid Day Meal Scheme has also significantly improved school retention rates. The Mid Day Meal Scheme is therefore pivotal in facilitating both, the right to food and the right to education for children in the country.
  • Accordingly, we hold that it is the legal and moral obligation of the State, under the constitutional provision and international treaty obligations to ensure that the children and their families are provided with means to feed themselves so as to not, owing to their substandard conditions, be forced into activities like beggary and rag-picking.
  • Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government of India had advised all State Governments vide office memorandum dated March 5, 2020, to take all necessary actions to avoid mass gathering in the State of Bihar. In its attempt to follow this advisory, the State had undertaken closure of all educational institutions.
  • The right to food is also statutorily recognized under Section 39 of the National Food Security Act, 2013. This Section read with Rule 9(1) of the Mid-day Meal Rules, 2015, envisages that if Mid-day Meal is not provided, the State Government shall pay to every child, Food Security Allowance by way of bank transfer into the accounts of parents.
  • In the State of Bihar, for the period commencing March 14, 2020 to May 3, 2020, each student of class I to V was paid ₹264/- and that of class VI to VIII ₹ 396. A total amount of ₹396 has been distributed through the direct benefits transfer among 1.19Crore students of classes I to VIII.

CHILD’S RIGHT TO EDUCATION- IN THE TIMES OF PANDEMIC, COVID-19

  • In the State of Bihar, as has come on record, more than 1.19 Crore children cannot attend school on account of Covid-19. To keep them engaged, as the learned Advocate General informs us, the State has come out with programmes of imparting teaching through the platform of television.
  • For a child, BPL has to be something more than meeting a nutritional threshold and be extended to include capacity building towards holistic development, which includes nutritional, educational and psychological needs of the child.
  • The learned amicus curiae has further averred that the economic hardship imposed by the ongoing pandemic is putting millions of children at risk of being forced into child labour, which could lead to the first global rise in child labour after 20 years of progress.
  • The learned amicus curiae has placed on the record research article endorsed by International Food Policy Research Institute titled Learning in times of lockdown: how Covid-19 is affecting education and food security in India.
  • The learned amicus curiae has apprised the Court of the United Kingdom model for providing the school meals during the corona virus outbreak.
  • The learned amicus curiae also put on record a report titled School Nutrition Program demonstrating the alternate arrangements made by the Government of Canada to continue school nutrition while students learn at home.

Directions of the Court

In light of the above, we direct for the State to consider, enforcing, to the extent possible:

a. Continue schemes like the Mid-Day Meal Scheme and the Sarwa Shiksha Scheme to provide meals or ration as feasible along with textbooks and notebooks to government school students.

b. Ensure that statutory benefits under the Food Security Act are disbursed in a timely manner, and updated records are maintained for the same.

c. Monitor the nutritional health of children by leveraging the reach of Anganwadi workers, who can keep track of children’s growth by recording the weight and height of children at regular intervals.

d. Work with the experts to procure and prepare digital lectures for students of all classes and age-groups.

e. Enhance the role of Anganwadi and NGO workers in every district, to help spread the message of the importance of continuing education via remote learning platforms. Parents to be educated, for ensuring the child’s continuous engagement in education during the pandemic.

f. Install community-level television sets and distribution of radio sets, ensuring the increase of reach of remote learning platforms. Perhaps, at the community level, small batches of children can be shown lectures on televisions, while maintaining social distancing norms.

g. With mobile handset penetration and telephone penetration in the State of Bihar being greater than Television and radio set penetration, the concerned authorities to consider, devising and implementing an action plan to utilize these mediums. To ensure engagement, consider expanding the possibility of waiver of telecom charges on the mobile handset or telephone being used for accessing educational programmes.

h. Use Telecom/digital infrastructure to mark the daily attendance of students. A call placed on the designated toll-free number may be programmed to record the daily attendance of the concerned student.

i. Organize a robust “Back to School” campaign in the wake of this pandemic, to ensure that a minimal dropout rate is achieved.

j. Further, workshops and training for teacher sought to be provided to ensure that they are well equipped in dealing with post-pandemic psychosocial needs of children.

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