India’s top court on Friday ordered state governments to provide free meals to school children even during the summer break as the country reels from the impact of one of the worst droughts on record.
Free lunches are offered to some 120 million students throughout India in what is the world’s largest school feeding programme, but not during holidays.
However, with some 330 million people a quarter of the Indian population suffering from severe drought, households have seen their incomes dip sharply owing to poor harvests.
Farmer suicides are high and some have migrated to cities and towns to work as daily wage labourers to earn money.
Acting on a petition, the Supreme Court ordered that children affected by drought should be provided free meals six days a week under the government scheme with either an egg or milk added to the menu.
“Children affected by the drought should be provided one egg or 200 gms (0.2 litre) of milk per day six days a week under the mid-day meal scheme,” Justice Madan B. Lokur said in a written judgement.
“In addition to this, the mid-day meal scheme should continue during the summer vacation period in schools so that children are not deprived of their meals.”
Poor rains have prompted extreme measures including water restrictions, armed guards at reservoirs and water trains sent to the worst-affected regions.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met recently with at least three state chief ministers over the drought, as the government comes under intense pressure to ease the crisis.
The free meal scheme, which started nationally in 2001, is aimed at enticing poor and vulnerable children to attend class instead of languishing at home hungry or helping their parents labour.
The 2015 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report ranked India at 20th spot, with a World Bank estimate saying it has the highest rate of malnutrition among children, almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa.
Petitioner Yogendra Yadav called the court’s verdict historic and urged governments to act swiftly on the order.