Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, due to non-availability of mid day meals in shutting of schools and Anganwadi centres, the Patna High Court has taken suo moto cognizance of the plight of children in the District Bhagalpur, Bihar.
Based on a news report by the Indian Express, the bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar took cognizance of the matter which listed that children had been forced to indulge into begging, garbage picking and scrap selling, due to non-availability of food in mid day meal.
“The news article highlights an issue of public importance and relevance. It concerns the welfare of children hailing from the lower most strata of the society; the marginalized, downtrodden, socially and economically deprived section of the society.”
Since the shutting down of the Anganwadi centres and suspension of supply of mid day meal to children under various schemes rooted by the Government, families and children who come from poor socio-economic backgrounds are facing economic hardships and as a result are “unable to put food on the table” due to lockdown.
A sum of Rs.114.21 to children from classes 1-5, and Rs.171.17 to children from classes 6-8 is being remitted directly into the bank accounts of the parents as per the news report. But, since April 2020, incidents were reported where no money stands remitted into the bank accounts of parents. The bench recorded that many families, including young children, are being forced into garbage collection or begging For earning purposes.
The bench expressed the concern,
“Adequate nutrition is essential for school children’s health and wellbeing. Children are kept away from schools and Anganwadi centres to restrict the spread of COVID 19. As a result, many nutrition deficient children who rely heavily on government schemes to meet their daily nutrition requirements have been put at risk. The disruption and closure of schools across the State will have a negative impact not just on children’s right to education but also in specific cases, their right to adequate food.”
The court expressed that the “constitutional and statutory mandate” needs to be implemented in letter and spirit and as per Article 47 of the Constitution, the State has a duty to raise the level of nutrition and standards of living of its people and improve public health in relation to mid day meal. Section 5 of the National Food Security Act 2013 casts a statutory obligation on the Government to provide nutritional support to children on the same lines.
A direction was made to the HC Registrar to register the petition as a suo moto case by the bench:
“The relevant issue that arises is 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 Pandemic COVID-19. The secondary issue that arises is that with the closing down of schools, what measures can be adopted to prevent school children from indulging in begging and garbage collection.”
Directions to file an affidavit on all the issues within the next two days, have been given to the Respondents parties i.e. The Government of Bihar, itsDepartment of Health & Family Welfare, and its Department of Education.
The bench communicated,
“Perhaps, for meeting the minimum nutritional requirement of a child, Anganwadi Centre; Community Centre(s) or the schools can be opened up, for a limited 8 purpose of providing food to the children. This, of course, has to be in conformity with the directions issued by the authorities for meeting with the situation of the current Pandemic Covid-19. Let the State take a conscious decision on this aspect. We direct the respondents herein to ensure that no child is pushed into or indulges in any activity of rack picking or beggary, more so on account of lack of food.”
However, the bench pointed that the instructions should not be misunderstood as a direction for recommencing classes.
In the case, Advocate ChhayaKirti has been appointed as Amicus Curiae.
Case Title: Court on its own motion v. State of Bihar
Case No.: CWC No. 7124/2020
Quorum: Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar