In response to an RTI query, filed on 15 March 2018, on complaints related to the sale of junk foods outside schools in the capital, Delhi’s Directorate of Education has claimed that the department has ‘not received any such complaint till date.’
Shubham Khatri, a student of class 12 at the Jain Bharati Mrigavati Vidyalaya, had filed an RTI application seeking response on whether Delhi schools are complying with the guidelines issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in 2015.
Too busy to read the whole story? Listen to instead.
To a question, whether the Delhi government had done any inspection to keep a check on the availability of junk food within school premises, the reply by the Directorate of Education states:
There is no canteen and no hostel facility for students of Delhi government schools. However, regarding creating awareness on the above said subject among the students of Delhi government schools, a circular was issued dated 31.08.16.
The RTI reply suggests a casual approach of the Delhi government as far as the health of school-going children is concerned.
After all, it is the responsibility of the Education Department, that comes under the Delhi government, to restrict the availability of junk foods to students, as per an order by the Delhi High Court.
Proximity Between Schools and Junk Food Joints
On 25 February 2015, following a PIL filed by Rahul Verma, founder of the Uday Foundation, the Delhi High Court had instructed the Delhi government to issue directions to schools to restrict the sale and availability of junk foods at schools across the capital.
The court had issued certain guidelines regarding the availability of healthy and nutritious food to school children:
- Identify foods high in fat, salt, and sugar (termed as HFSS foods).
- Restrict/limit the availability of most common HFSS foods in schools and area within 50 meters.
- List chips, fried foods, sugar sweetened carbonated beverages, sugar sweetened non-carbonated beverages, ready-to-eat noodles, pizzas, burgers as most common HFSS foods.
Despite the court’s instructions to restrict the availability of HFSS foods inside schools and within 50 meters, a reality check on the ground reveals proximity between schools and shops selling junk food thus, posing a risk to the health of our children.
Sarvodaya Co-Ed Vidyalaya located in New Delhi’s South Extension Part-2 has a shop right opposite the school selling chips and soft drinks.
In south Delhi’s Sangam Vihar, Surya Public School is in the middle of a busy market, perhaps that explains why a samosa wala and a chole-bhature seller stand with their kiosks on the opposite side of the school.
Similarly, Siwas Public School in Sangam Vihar has a Bikaner Sweets outlet right in front of the entrance gate.
Another grocery shop is at a walking distance from the MCD Girls Primary School in Sangam Vihar.
The very signboard leading to the Nanki Public School has a sweet shop adjoining to it, with packets of chips adorning the front row.
Both the Little Ones Public School that runs classes from 1-8 as well as Lingaya’s Public School, located near Saket metro station, are literally cheek-by-jowl with a dhaba.
Why the Delhi Govt Stopped at ‘Creating Awareness’?
In 2015, the Delhi High Court had advised the AAP government to issue directives in accordance with Rule no. 43 of the Delhi School Education Rules, 1973, that enable the administrator to draft regulations in the interest of children. On 29 February 2016, the Delhi government issued a circular emphasising the need to create awareness among students.
The circular, which was addressed to the principals of both government as well as private and unaided schools, was interestingly silent on how to curb availability of junk foods right outside the school campus. Sample some of the measures that were suggested in the circular issued by the Directorate of Education:
- Consider banning the sale of foods which are high in fat, sugar and salt from school canteen
- Ensure that the school canteen sells fresh and healthy foods which are low in fat, sugar, and salt contents
- Morning assembly may be dedicated for this purpose once a month
- Maintain a notice board for creating awareness
Rahul Verma, the petitioner in the case, who had approached the court seeking ban on sale of junk food in and around schools across India in 2010, is appalled at the reply of Delhi government to the RTI form:
Even if there are no canteens inside schools owned by the government, what about street vendors who continue to sell food that is not good for health? This reply is eye-opener and I would urge both the chief minister as well as the deputy chief minister to take immediate action. What the court has said should be followed.Rahul Verma, Founder, Uday Foundation
Can Children Make an Informed Choice?
Concerns of activists like Verma are justified given the fact that at 14.4 million, ‘India has the second highest number of obese children in the world after China’, according to a report published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The school administration, technically speaking, can’t dedicate resources towards this, as the matter comes under the purview of the police as well as the food and civil supplies department. Roping in police to ensure that hawkers don’t encroach on spots within 50 meters of school premises doesn’t sound like a practical idea either.
For a country that has 151 police personnel per lakh of population, as admitted by the Centre in Lok Sabha, it would be a daunting task for the men in khaki to keep a check on the sale of junk food outside every school.
Children themselves may not be able to make an informed choice in this case due to easy availability of junk food that is just a few steps away from the school.
In 2005, the US House of Representatives passed a legislation, commonly known as the ‘Cheeseburger Bill’, that prevents people from filing suits against fast food chain owners for making them fat. As an editorial in The New York Times puts it, the idea was to put the onus on the citizens:
The Cheeseburger Bill (formally, ‘The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act’) attempted to legislate the message that the cost of fast food are personal not social, and certainly not a consequence of selling harmful food at addictively low prices.
On the contrary, back in India, the High Court had given an opportunity to the Delhi government to set its house in order. For a state government that prides itself over the quality of education, acknowledging the problem of junk food joints near schools can perhaps be the first step in the right direction.
(The Quint is now on WhatsApp. To receive handpicked stories on topics you care about, subscribe to our WhatsApp services. Just go to TheQuint.com/WhatsApp and hit send)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)