Close to a century after the Madras Corporation initiated a school meal programme under the Justice Party, the Tamil Nadu government inaugurated a scheme to provide free breakfasts to primary school children in the state. The scheme, piloted in 15 districts at Rs 33.56 crore, will serve 1.14 lakh children in 1,545 government schools. Launching the programme, Chief Minister M K Stalin stressed that the scheme should not be considered a “freebie” or a concession but the duty and responsibility of the government. Invoking the pioneers of the Dravidian movement, Stalin said it was their vision that there should be no barrier to access to education, including poverty or caste.
Tamil Nadu’s success in the midday meal scheme adopted nationally is well-known, and its approach towards welfare, regardless of which Dravidian major has been in power, has become central both to its development as well as the political debate on ‘freebies’. It is the case of the DMK that so-called freebies are investments in the people that may have far-reaching effects.
For instance, the free breakfast scheme not only ensures better nutritional intake in young children and better school performance on a full stomach but also eases the pressures on family expenditure and women’s labour. Another example is the impact the scheme offering free bus travel for women has had in less than a year more women have been able to leave homes for work and earn or save for their families.
This is not to say the administration of welfare schemes is flawless or without critique. Midday meal workers have recently flagged the need to increase allocations to keep up with inflation, especially regarding the cost of gas cylinders and vegetables. Workers have also questioned why the breakfast scheme has been handed over to SHGs or contractors for centralised cooking rather than adopting the decentralised, community-based approach of the midday meals. Similarly, about the bus scheme, women have faced friction between bus conductors and drivers who stand to lose out on meeting their collection targets. The devil lies in the details.
These are the gaps that the state must also focus on filling to ensure that every eligible resident can access TN’s welfare schemes and services seamlessly, without struggle, graft or delay.