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The Court on Monday also directed the State authorities to ensure that "no child is pushed into or indulges in any activity of rack picking or beggary on account of lack of food."
The Patna High Court on Monday took suo motu cognizance of news reports highlighting that children from marginalized communities in Bihar's Bhagalpur had been forced into garbage picking and scrap selling on account of non-availability of mid-day meals following the closure of schools and Anganwadi centres amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the shutting down of schools and Anganwadi centres 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.
On July 6, the Indian Express published a news story highlighting the plight of the children in Bhagalpur district of Bihar wherein children belonging to the economically weaker sections have been forced into begging and garbage collection in order to put food on the table for their families.
The Patna High Court took suo motu cognizance of this news report which also points out that due to the suspension of the mid-day meal schemes in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, the children belonging to the marginalized communities have been the worst sufferers. Taking note of the same, the Court, in its order said:
A specific amount of money, in lieu of the mid-day meals the children were entitled to, was to be remitted to the bank accounts of parents of these children given that the midday meals stood suspended. However, many families complained that no remittance to this effect was received by them since April this year. It is in these dire circumstances, that the children of the families were forced into begging, garbage picking, selling scrap, among other things, in order to "put food on the table".
The Patna High Court took cognizance of this news report on the same day as it was published. The Division Bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar said that this is a matter that concerns the welfare of the children from the lowermost strata of the society i.e. the "marginalized, downtrodden, socially and economically deprived section of the society."
Many children from these sections rely on and are dependent on the government's mid-day meal scheme for their adequate nutrition. The suspension of the scheme due to the COVID-19 pandemic has put the health of such children at great risk, the Court noted.
The Court is essentially addressing two issues through this litigation, the primary concern being whether the State is providing food and nutritional security to children in the discharge of its Constitutional and statutory duty. Secondarily, it is intended to deal with how the benefit of the mid-day meal scheme can be made available to the children who are adversely impacted by the closure of schools and Anaganwadis.
Article 47 of the Constitution of India places a duty upon the State to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of the people. Further, Section 5 of the National Food Security Act provides for the nutritional support of children. The Court said that these provisions need to be implemented in letter and spirit and as such, it has issued notice to the State of Bihar on the matter.
The Departments of Helath and Education of the State of Bihar have been arrayed as Respondents in the matter and the Court was assured that the State of Bihar would file a response on the issue within two days.
The Court sought to suggest the limited opening of community centres, Anganwadis, etc. only for the purpose of meeting the minimum nutritional requirement of children. However, it was added that should this step be taken, all the precautionary measures and norms to guard against COVID-19 ought to be followed.
Regardless, in the meantime, the State must ensure that no child is pushed into begging, rag-picking and such, especially due to unavailability of food.
The Court also appointed Advocate Chhaya Kirti as Amicus Curiae in the case while Advocate Vikash Kumar accepted notice on behalf of the State of Bihar.
In March this year, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance of non-availability of mid-day meals due to closure of schools and anganwadis on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court had sought a reply from all the States and Union Territories in this regard.