Saturday 15 Jun 2024

In the age of upskilling, shutting out SHGs is step in wrong direction

| FEBRUARY 29, 2024, 12:42 AM IST

Akshay Patra Foundation is set to make an entry into Goa and provide mid-day meals to 5,000 students on a trial basis from the next academic year. It is learnt that they have been introduced in areas where schools are not serviced by Self-Help Groups (SHGs). A government official was quoted as saying that Akshay Patra will begin supplies in schools where the quality of food is an issue. Interestingly, the official disclosed to this newspaper that several school heads have approached the department and shown interest in the Akshay Patra service.

On the flip side, the SHGs are in a quandary having been not paid for the past seven months, an outstanding amount of over Rs 80 lakh. There is a twist here too. The Department of Education claims that there has been a delay in submission of the bills and hence the amount could not be paid. Delay in payment of bills has been a long-standing issue with SHGs who have been raising a red flag over unpaid bills for nearly a year, while every single time the department blames it on delay in receiving the Central share of the payments.

There appears to be something seriously wrong here because these issues have been dragging on far too long. Complaints of food quality and pending bills are twin issues that seem to weigh down the arrangement, and project these providers as villains. The last time when the SHGs raised a banner of revolt was in October 2022 where they threatened to stop supplies if payments were not settled. The government countered it by threatening to introduce Akshay Patra and the SHGs quickly retracted from their hard posturing out of fear that they may be out of work.

Displacing SHGs out of their service is not the ideal solution, especially at a time when the government is speaking the language of skilling, upskilling and reskilling. Any step to phase them out of the system would be another severe blow to the already fading Goemkarponn. The service that SHGs provide reflect the essence of Goanness, and every effort must be made to refine and strengthen it so that they become partners in the Swaympoorna journey that Chief Minster Pramod Sawant has been so proudly embarking on. Bringing in outstation agencies and food providers and displacing these foot soldiers is not the solution that any Goan would be proud of.

While it would be wrong to argue that the government has not supported SHGs in other spheres, because there has been support at various levels — from providing financial incentives to SHGs under the ‘homestay’ policy, assistance in marketing their products under the Swayampurana e-bazaar scheme and engaging them at various canteens at bus stands, government offices, colleges, etc. Even in the mid-day meal scheme, the State has enhanced its contribution over the Central funding to benefit the SHGs.

The need of the hour is to tighten the loose ends, strengthen the system by engaging in further skilling SHGs, provide financial assistance to set up model kitchens, have better food checks and introducing periodic assessments. We must admit that under the current system, there is an overload and SHGs may be bitting more than what they could chew. In that exuberance of inviting Akshay Patra, let us not shut out the Goemkar.

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