It is 12:35pm. Students of Bumpazor primary school in Drepong, Mongar rush out to queue in front of two huge pots. They are excited. They are hungry.
The school caretaker serves them rice and vegetable curry.
Located about 17km from Mongar, the 42 students who walk for almost an hour every day to school get a day meal from the school.
However, the meal they are provided is not part of the government-feeding programme. Parents volunteered to contribute money for school meals.
Walking to school every morning at 6am, carrying packed lunch was difficult for the students. Even when they manage to get packed lunch, the food turned cold by lunchtime. School principal, Ugyen said most students refused to eat.
The school and the parents then came up with an initiative in 2017 where a parent contributed Nu 500 a child a year. Principal Ugyen said they started the feeding programme to ensure the students do not go hungry in school.
“While teachers take turn to be the mess in-charge, the caretaker helps in cooking,” he said.
Bumpazor PS is among the more than 100 primary and secondary schools located in remote rural locations that are in dire need for feeding programme from the government. About 31,460 in these schools students do not get school meals like those in central or identified schools.
Away from the remote school in Drepong, the cabinet held a press conference in Thimphu on its 120 days in office. It announced that its pledge to “implement free nutritious lunch programme in all schools,” was achieved.
Had it been achieved, Bumpazor PS would be providing nutritious lunch to its students.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said yesterday that although the feeding programme has not been implemented in the schools yet, the government intentionally labeled this pledge as achieved because the process to implement it has already begun.
Explaining that it takes time to frame the policy and get it approved, Lyonchhen said the cabinet has discussed the issue at length and approved to feed nutritious lunch in all schools.
“This is the reason why we took the pledge as achieved. I agree that nutritious lunch has not yet reached our children’s mouth but it will be definitely implemented,” he said.
He said that although the party makes promises during elections, the government after winning the election needs time to discuss and implement the pledge.
“This is what we did. We dissected the policy of providing food and we realised we need the budget for this and then discussed on how to get the budget,” he said. “The government has agreed to increase the stipend.”
The government has also decided to handover the approved revised stipend to the agriculture ministry instead of the education ministry this time. Lyonchhen said this was because the agriculture ministry could produce and distribute nutritious diet to the students.
Lyonchhen said the government is also working on relooking the role of Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited and possibility of Bhutan Post distributing food to schools.
“We’ve lost sleepless nights and weeks to work out this programme, which the media and other people would not be aware of,” Lyonchhen said. “We were happy to announce it as achieved although it is people’s right to say that it is not achieved because the food has not reached the school.”
The government’s pledge on free nutrition also varies. In contrast to its 120 days pledges of providing free nutritious lunch in all schools, the free nutrition plan chapter in the party’s manifesto states that the party would provide free nutritious lunch for all children in identified schools.
On this, Lyonchhen said the government would first start with identified schools on need basis and then spread it to the rest of the schools.
“In urban places, it may not be possible or may not be required. We’ll first start from the schools in rural areas and if it matches with the government’s resources, then maybe we’ll take it to urban schools.”
After the World Food Programme (WFP) phased out in 2018, the government took over the feeding programme for the last batch of 13,371 students in 162 schools under WFP feeding programme this year.
The education ministry has also proposed the cabinet to increase the stipend and implement-feeding programme in all rural schools. Lyonchhen said the proposal is approved in principle.
The ministry today provides meals in three categories of feeding – three meals for borders, two meals for day feeding and one meal for day scholars in central schools.
Meanwhile in Bumpazor, the four teachers wanted to discontinue the school feeding programme from this academic session. The cost of commodities had increased and some parents were unable to afford the contribution.
“We wanted to discontinue from this year but the parents insisted that we continue since it was helping students eat lunch on time,” principal Ugyen said. “They said they will manage the Nu 1,000 a year contribution for their children’s food.”
Yangchen C Rinzin