MGR is possibly the most iconic leader in Tamil Nadu’s history. His fame was helped in great part thanks to his introduction of the Midday Nutritious Meal Scheme in the early 1980s.
Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, or MGR – AIADMK founder, three-time chief minister, Bharat Ratna recipient – dominated Tamil Nadu’s stratosphere for four decades. In this richly detailed biography of the man often called vathiyar, or teacher, R. Kannan traces MGR’s life from his poverty-ridden years – he was a Class III dropout – to his rise as a matinee idol, before becoming a politician of repute.
Here is a small excerpt from the book about MGR’s legendary mid-day meal scheme launched in 1982 that fed 65.7 lakh schoolchildren and others.
NUTRITIOUS MEAL SCHEME
In between all this political maneuvering, MGR went ahead with his emphasis on the rural economy, cottage industries, strengthening last-mile connectivity, and, importantly, his social welfare measures. On 1 July, MGR joined the children of Pappakurichi village, in Trichy district, for lunch, to inaugurate the now celebrated Midday Nutritious Meal Scheme. The meal programme initially covered 56.9 lakh rural schoolchildren, providing them a meal of about 400 calories a day. Extended to the urban areas from September 1982, covering, in all, over 52,000 centres, including 31,000 schools, it took the number of beneficiaries up to 65.7 lakh children. The scheme provided employment to 1,80,119 persons, of which 1,58,387 were destitute women. The cost of the programme was Rs. 133 crore per annum. Attendance at primary schools would go up to 96.2 per cent among the six to 11 age group and to 66.03 per cent in the 11 to 14 age group. The nation had rarely seen a scheme of this magnitude. From 15 January 1983, the scheme would also cover 1,50,000 old age pensioners, orphans and destitute widows. In 1987 Nedunchezhian would put the number of total beneficiaries from 1983 at 92 lakh.
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Among the other measures MGR announced later were providing a job per family, on 2 September,10 and free tooth-powder for children, on 14 November 1982. In 1987, plans for free footwear were afoot. The age of freebies had arrived.
MGR said on the launch of the lunch scheme:
This scheme is an outcome of my experience of extreme starvation at an age when I knew only to cry when I was hungry. But for the munificence of a woman next door, who offered a bowl of rice gruel to my mother and us, when we were starving for three days, and saved us from the cruel hand of death, we would have left this world long ago. Such merciful women, having great faith in me, elected me as chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
To wipe the tears of these women I have taken up this project.
MGR little realised that he had etched a permanent place for himself in history books with the launch of this scheme. ‘It is epoch-making. Governments may come and go, but this scheme for 20,000 villages will go on,’ Somasundaram, the revenue minister, had said prophetically. The scheme itself was not new. In 1920, two years after Kurichi Rangaswami Aiyangar had begun a lunch programme for students of the Hindu Theological School, the Justice Party’s Sundarrao Naidu introduced free breakfast to pupils in a corporation preparatory school in Thousand Lights, Madras. Extended to four other schools by 1925, the paucity of funds saw an end to the avant-garde meal scheme and a consequent drop in school enrollment. On 17 July 1956, Chief Minister Kamaraj introduced the midday meal programme in Ettayapuram, Tirunelveli district. The scheme was gradually expanded and, by 1962–63, 27,256 of the state’s 28,005 aided or government-run schools were covered.
However, at the time of the launch of the new scheme, on 1 July 1980, the existing one covered only a third of the students for 200 days in a year. MGR had scaled it up 25 times. The new scheme covered all poor children for 365 days a year and the state bore the expenditure of 45 paise per head. MGR also set up and chaired a high-power committee to monitor the scheme’s progress. Chief Secretary K. Diraviam served as member-secretary, with support from two dozen senior officials and a politician, and saw to the success of the scheme. Jayalalithaa, who was the politician in Diraviam’s team, travelled across the state to spread the good word on the scheme. District collectors and party officials met her. On her return, she reported her findings on the administration and party affairs to the chief minister, who acted on them. She would later attribute her elevation in 1983 as propaganda secretary to this work.
Ironically, when the scheme was discussed in the Cabinet, Nedunchezhian and others had opposed it, fearing corruption and wastage. MGR vetoed them, saying that any scheme would see a certain degree of corruption and that the baby cannot be thrown out with the bathwater. In MGR’s scheme, education was secondary and feeding was primary. When MGR suggested, ‘Let us provide a hot meal with vegetable dishes to the pupils, akin to the lunch served in a middle-income family to the children by their mother’, Aranganayagam was struck by his large heart and vision. A committee that included social worker Rajammal Devadas was formed; Devadas took a leaf out of the UN’s World Food Programme book and adapted it to local needs. Greens and spinach were included and an ayah who had studied up to Class Ten was to take care of the pre-school children.
The scheme was ingenious and would do more than any of his other welfare measures to perpetuate his do-gooder image, leading DMK leader Murasoli Maran to perceptively comment:
MGR is grossly exploiting the state’s machinery and finances to project his own image by distributing alms. When he has failed on each front, he has started this to divert the people’s attention from their hardships.
But Kalaignar had gone further, charging that MGR was turning children into beggars. Taking offence, he argued that Kalaignar should have instead offered advice on how to better implement the scheme.
Ironically, when the DMK came to power, they were compelled to continue the scheme, adding eggs twice a week and, in the 2016 elections, promising milk. So popular was the programme. Much later, on 28 November 2001, the Supreme Court, acting on a public interest litigation, would rule that government and government-assisted primary schools should provide cooked mid-day meals.
But the state had a deficit of Rs 300 crore and a determined MGR had to find nifty ways of funding the project, which were not all kosher. A Chief Minister’s Nutritious Noon Meal Programme Fund was created and donations to it were exempted from income tax. Contributions to it became a pre-requisite for obtaining government clearances and for routine administrative orders. Another Rs 10 crore was raised by way of a day’s salary of government staff, one month’s salary from ruling party MLAs and MPs, and the earnings from one show at cinemas. But money was also raised in many controversial ways, when, within a year, MGR would relax prohibition, although S. Ramachandran said that it was done towards filling the party’s coffers.
You can buy ‘MGR: A Life’ by R. Kannan here.