On Monday, the Patna High Court took suo moto cognizance of news reports which highlighted that the children from marginalized communities in Bihar’s Bhagalpur have been forced into garbage picking and scrap selling on the account of non-availability of mid-day meals, following the closure of schools and Anganwadi centers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bench comprising of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar took cognizance of the matter based on a news report of Indian Express dated 6th July, which pointed out that children belonging to the economically weaker sections had been forced to indulge in begging, garbage picking and scrap selling, due to the non-availability of food.
Subsequently, the bench stated that “The news article highlights an issue of public importance and relevance. It concerns the welfare of children hailing from the lowermost strata of the society; the marginalized, downtrodden, socially and economically deprived section of the society.”
Further, the bench cited that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the shutting down of schools and Anganwadi centers across the country. Resultantly, the children are deprived of the mid-day meals that would be provided at these schools under the mid-day schemes, thereby affecting the health of these children.
“According to the news item, ever since the lockdown, 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. Children who are most prone to malnutrition are the worst sufferers of the ongoing pandemic. This is on account of shutting down of the Anganwadi centers and suspending the supply of mid-day meals to children under the various schemes rooted by the Government,” observed the court.
As per the news item, 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. Incidents were reported where no money stands remitted into the bank accounts of parents since April 2020. For earning, many families, including young children, are being forced into garbage collection or begging, the bench recorded.
Expressing concern over the issue the bench said, “Adequate nutrition is essential for school children’s health and wellbeing. Children are kept away from schools and Anganwadi centers 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.”
While directing the HC Registrar to register the petition as a suo moto case, the bench stated that “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 centers 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.”
The Government of Bihar, its Department of Health & Family Welfare and its Department of Education have been impleaded as Respondent-parties and have been directed to file an affidavit on all the issues within the next two days.
In the interregnum, the bench said, “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 the account of lack of food,” it added.