Posts Tagged ‘ISKCON’

The Poignant Story of Appaji Gowda

December 9, 2011

Very few may know about it, Appaji Gowda is one of the pioneers in providing mid-day meals to children in Government schools of Karnataka State. Gowda was having a comfortable life with a well paying job in Mico when his life went through a quantum change. What caused it was an accidental visit to State run school nearby; it so happened that the kids were having lunch at that time. He found that there was a bad odor permeating the class room; he soon found out that this was emanating from the lunch boxes. The food in most of them was stale; their moms were getting day old leftovers and a part of this was passed on to the kids for lunch. Gowda could not stand this; he decided had to do something about it.

He quit his job, sold a part of his ancestral property and set up a kitchen to cook food for the school kids. More problems were in store for him; he had to find funding for groceries and also conveyance for transporting the incoming/ outgoing material. This was Feb 98 when the State was not even supplying rice free of cost. He started an Initiative in the name of Akhila Karnataka Kannada Kasturi Sangha and went about scouting for Donors. With a lot of effort and at great personal sacrifice, he started feeding 5000 kids. The program slowly grew to 300 schools and 35,000 students by the time I came across him in Feb ’02.

I wanted badly meals to be supplied to the three schools I had taken up and I had no funds to back up the request. Gowda was really magnanimous; he said that if he can handle 35k, he could do it to 40k too! He told me that I need not worry about funding him; his only concern was transportation. He had no spare capacity to deliver the food at the school premises; I could collect it at his place at no cost. That was not good enough for me naturally; and I had very little funds to spare either. He took me to a mini-van dealer on Lalbagh Road, did all the haggling for me and got me a good deal on a hire-purchase basis with a nominal down payment. The supplies started soon enough; 500 plus kids got a hot meal thanks to Appaji Gowda.

I wish the story ended there but that was not to be. The State commenced the much delayed mid-day meal scheme in 05 and the scene changed totally. With   millions of kids in the State to be fed, various models of meal supply emerged to meet the needs. The schools in remote and rural areas had to manage with local resources and set up their own kitchens, for which the State provided the needed assistance. The scene was very different in urban areas; while there were honorable exceptions, quite a few Organizations with  commercial interest sprung up to meet the emerging demand. In any case, all the ventures have now to go back to the Government and its agencies for the subsidized supplies and payment against services provided. As every one knows, this is not an easy thing to handle, especially for those with ‘idealistic aspirations’ like Appaji Gowda.

With difficulty, he adjusted himself to the new environment and continued to supply meals to the schools that opted for his service. He still has a loyal cluster of 300 schools that have chosen to stay with him. However with no Organizational or Corporate support, he has no means of sustaining  his capacity, let alone compete with the rest of the pack. Unwilling to deviate from his principles, he would not cut corners and that gave him the barest of margins enough to eke out a living. The investments from his life savings have now gone uncompensated; worse still, the equipments are now approaching the end of their lives needing maintenance/ replacement badly. The State has no provision for covering any of these and that leaves Gowda really high and dry.

Where does he go from here? Is there any role for people like him with idealism in the new dispensation? Will he be even able to maintain himself and his family without compromising on the principles that he holds dear? I have no answers for any of the above. Do you?

A sequel: I have nominated him for the Namma Bengluru award for this year in the category of Outstanding Individuals.

E S Ramamurthy

Mid-day Meal Scheme- An Open Appeal to ISKCON

April 21, 2011

There is no single intervention in the Public School System that has done greater good for the school going kids of India than the Mid-day meal Scheme. This welfare measure did not come easily; the highest court of the land had to issue a diktat to the States and threaten action for contempt for non-compliance before they fell in line. All the impressive statistics that we see in the area of enrollment and retention are due to this single initiative that went to ensure that the children get at least one hot meal a day to minimum nutritional standards. The scheme has still its shortfalls, thanks to the pusillanimity of the Administration in the States which keep raising issues on the admissible rates for reimbursement, scope of coverage and the inclusion of nutritional supplements. Apparently they have always adequate funds to bail out dubious ventures in other Sectors but cannot find money to feed the vulnerable sections of the new generation. Politics here follow the famous Quote: “What has the next generation done for us to merit special attention for us”.
I still recall the days when Sikshana had to feed nearly 1000 kids in three schools; we could obviously not have preached quality of education to children on empty stomach. Once the State stepped in 2004, the situation eased up quite a bit for us; we did not have to bother about this burden. I have since been following up the progress of this scheme with considerable interest.
Initially, a provision of Rs 2.75 per child was made by the State, the good gesture tainted by many graceless caveats. Typical of them was the stipulation that the reimbursement of materials will be computed based on the actual attendance on a daily basis. At the school, the HM has to initiate cooking with release of material well before the actual numbers are available; kids are known to come late often and they cannot be denied lunch.  It was left to the schools to sort this out; everyone knows that it is such unworkable rules that encourage malpractices and dishonesty among people who would prefer to be law abiding citizens given a chance.
After six years, this admissible rate for a meal stands somewhere near Rs 3.25, the figure depending on how it is reckoned. Though a lot can be written about this subject, which will not reflect well on the State, the focus of this blog is not on this but on another aspect of the scheme that calls for a lot more thought and introspection- the sourcing and distribution. Typically, the school is expected to find its own way to feed the kids with the material supplied. In an urban environment, the logistics could pose problems, given the acute shortage of space in most schools, thereby restricting their options.
The picture becomes different as one goes away from this environment to rural areas. Here, the schools have space not only for cooking but also for growing vegetables for the menu; there is ready availability of local labor too for preparation. Though the remunerations admissible for the cook and the helper are not princely sums, they were still adequate for local entrepreneurship to evolve in these communities which enabled the schools to ensure that the kids are fed well. In many areas, women’s self help groups have come forward to take up the job. This is really a very welcome development. If there are any people with a real interest in the welfare of these kids, it should be these women- more so when some of their own children are likely to be in the same schools. This did put some pressure on the HM’s since they had to keep accounts for money and material, a responsibility grudgingly accepted by them over a period of time. The scheme is now however stabilized and is doing well enough within the given limitations.    
The story unfortunately neither starts nor ends here. Historically, a few initiatives existed that were catering to this need prior to the State announcing its welfare measure.  While it was a very commendable effort at that time, their continuance under the new regime where the State has taken up the responsibility is what causes concern with wide ranging implications.
For understandable reasons, such initiatives are popular in urban areas where space is at a premium; and cooking and distribution within the school premises are logistic nightmares. However when they start straying into areas beyond urban clusters, the issue becomes more complex, requiring a closer look. In far flung rural areas, it makes eminent sense to prepare food locally where it is required for consumption.
I have serious issues with one such initiative in Karnataka, which is actively supported by the State; this is Akshaya Patra from ISKCON. It is one of the most popular ones around Bangalore City and attracts lot of Donor attention. Unlike many of the other ventures in the City, the meal provided by this Organization is subsidized by the State; while exact figures are not available, it is highly likely that the subsidy is higher than the cost incurred by it under its own scheme. The coverage extends to a few hundred thousand children out of a possible 8 million in the State, with no prospects of extension across the state. I do not see the logic behind categorizing the kids under the PES into two streams: one fit for this preferential allotment and the other consigned to the routine State designed menu. Having done that, the State and ISKCON could have restricted the area of coverage to urban clusters, however unfair this would have been for the majority of kids in the public school stream. On the other hand, we find that their operation is progressively expanding with more centralized production facilities and distribution nodes into semi-urban and rural areas.  Unfortunately many Sikshana schools fall under the periphery of some of these new facilities; as a result we come under constant pressure from these schools to get them included in this ‘fortunate’ list.
It is unacceptable to me that some kids in public schools are selected for a Rs 6.5 meal, while the rest under the same system are advised to get reconciled to a Rs 3.2 one. Apart from all the distinctions that we have created based on castes, classes etc., we seem to be introducing a new one along the urban/ rural divide. There are more arguments against this irrational approach. It is an environmentally unfriendly scheme since it involves movement of prepared meals from the central kitchen to the schools in remote areas. Further it deprives the local community of employment opportunities that a decentralized solution would have provided. More to the point, the bonding that this brings about between the schools and the communities is also lost.
Notwithstanding the above, I admire Akshaya Patra for all that it does and keep doing for the welfare of the children. I have only one appeal to make to them. Instead of replicating the efforts of the State, can they try and supplement them? If they care to look around, I am sure they will find many interesting possibilities.  
It is not as if the State has wiped out hunger with one meal for school going kids.   From my personal experience I can affirm that many of these children now come to school without breakfast, since their families are assured their wards will get one square meal at noon. The children now go through three hours of schooling on an empty stomach, eagerly waiting for the lunch bell; some schools even advance the timings to accommodate these kids.  
I am sure it is within the capabilities of Akshaya Patra Foundation to find a far better option than the one adopted by them at present.

E S Ramamurthy