A recent ad on Mid-day meal Scheme in India, made by UNICEF and uploaded on Youtube by Ministry of Human Resource and Development, is exciting. It shows little kids sitting together and enjoying nutritious meals offered in their schools. The lyrics of the ad are, yahan dosti khob pakti hai, meethi- meethi se lagti hai, which means, we cook friendship here and it tastes sweet.
Malnutrition is more common in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa. One in every three malnourished child in the world lives in India. To tackle malnutrition the Government of India is implementing its mid-day meal scheme, which offers meals in the state run or state assisted schools. Proper nutrition in the early stages of life is critical to the development of the physical and cognitive potential of an individual. Abundant literature available on community health suggests, providing cooked meals at school reduces students’ protein, calorie and iron deficiencies.
In addition to its benefit of reducing malnutrition among children, the mid-day meal also promote social harmony by eroding caste prejudices and promoting equality. Cooked meals at school enable children from all castes and classes to share food, an act which many Indians, due to the archaic notions of purity and pollution, avoid in their daily life.
People in India consider certain things like feces, menstrual blood, dead bodies, etc to be polluting. This notion of pollution is not just limited to these things, which are seen as ‘filthy’ in most societies of the world, but it extends to certain people and their belongings as well. Often a low caste person, whose forefathers had done work which required touching such things, and his belongings, are also seen polluting.
Although the ancient barbaric practices of avoiding touching and looking at low caste people have withered away, aversion towards sharing food or utensils with a low caste person is still prevailing in modern India. Upper caste Hindus avoid eating with low caste people, such as a people from the Nau, Dhobi, Pasi, Chamar and Valmiki castes. People associate each caste with a certain type of work they do, even if it is not literally true that people from that caste continue to do only that type of work.
Some may think that these barbaric and inhuman practices are limited only to those belonging to upper castes but they are similarly pervasive among the lower castes as well. Bhasha Singh, a journalist who has meticulously cover caste and manual scavenging, writes in her book Unseen, “Both the so-called lower and upper castes are equally in the grip of feudal-Brahmanical thinking that endorses the Hindu concept of the four castes. And this has transcended the confines of Hinduism alone to become a way of thinking that pervades all of Indian society.”
During our field work, to understand the causes of failure of sanitation programs in rural India, we spoke to many people about caste, purity and pollution. A young man in a Pasi family in rural Uttar Pradesh told us, “If a low caste person [castes which are below pasis] sits on our stool we would not use it again… [Similarly] when we go and visit the Thakurs (an upper caste only below Brahmins), we are offered tea in a cup which is kept separate for the other low caste visitors [like us]…. Our ancestors have framed these rules and, if you think standing in the shoes of a villager, these things are better and should continue.” Similarly, Indian Muslims are also practice caste based discrimination. The reaction of a Muslim family, in rural India, on sharing food with a low caste person was, “We can’t feed them in our houses. We can’t feed them in our utensils… No one can eat the food cooked by them.”
Social hierarchy in contemporary India has shaped into a more complex nexus of discrimination. Muslims have an aversion to sharing food with a lower caste Hindu, upper caste Hindus have it for lower caste Hindus and both upper and lower caste Hindus are averse to sharing food with a Muslim.
These cases which we have discussed here are not simply anecdote, nor such incidents are confined to rural north India alone. In fact, a recent study done by NCAER and University of Maryland, conducted in over 42,000 households across India, found more than a fourth of Indians continue to practice untouchability in some form in their homes.
It is true that India still has a long journey before it shapes into a more equal and caring society. But at the same time small efforts like the mid-day meals are helping her to be one. May the sweet cooked friendship in schools last forever.