New Delhi, Oct. 5: Union minister Kapil Sibal has promised measures to ensure that the Centre's curbs on cooking-gas subsidy would not derail the midday meal scheme that serves eight crore children in 12 lakh elementary schools.
The Telegraph had reported on Wednesday that self-help groups had stopped preparing midday meals in over 50 primary schools in North 24-Parganas since Monday saying they could not afford the cylinders' new price.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee had said yesterday that the Centre's move was anti-student and would affect the cooked food programme in government-run and aided schools.
Today, human resource development minister Sibal said: "I have spoken to petroleum minister Jaipal Reddy on the issue of the LPG cap. This is a matter of concern. The petroleum minister also recognised the problem. But the matter would be addressed and the meal scheme would not be allowed to be affected."
A central notification has created a non-subsidised category under which schools and hospitals will have to pay around Rs 1,100 for an LPG cylinder against the Rs 401 they have been paying till now.
Sibal suggested that the Centre was now considering two options. "Either the petroleum ministry will continue to provide subsidised cylinders to schools, or we shall ask the finance ministry to allocate the additional money required to purchase the LPG cylinders at the commercial price. We will make that arrangement," Sibal said.
Sibal's ministry has written to the petroleum ministry not to do away with subsidised LPG cylinders for the midday meal scheme. A senior petroleum ministry official said the request was under consideration and a "decision would be taken very soon".
Mamata had yesterday stepped up the heat on the UPA by saying at a public meeting: "I will hold them (the Centre) responsible if the midday meal scheme is discontinued."
If schools have to buy cooking gas cylinders at the new rates, the government has to spend an additional Rs 653 crore a year on the midday meal scheme. The budget allocation for the programme, meant for students of Classes I to VIII, is now Rs 10,000 crore a year.
Experts say the midday meal scheme has been a success, encouraging families to send their children to school and checking the dropout rate.
Sibal's ministry has requested the Planning Commission to widen the scheme during the 12th Plan period (2012-17) by providing midday meals to the disadvantaged children admitted to private schools under the 25 per cent quota stipulated by the Right to Education Act.
The ministry has also suggested that midday meals be provided to all the children studying in 25,117 private schools in areas with sizeable Dalit, tribal and minority populations. The plan panel has accepted both proposals.