One evening more than five decades ago, K Kamaraj — the third chief minister of Tamil Nadu — was touring the countryside. As was his habit, he got down from his car and walked up to a group of agricultural labourers in a paddy field.
He noticed a few children working alongside the group of men and women. When he asked why were the children not in school, a few women answered — for a bowl of gruel that all those who worked in the fields got from the farm owners. That was why the parents brought their children along instead of sending them to school.
After Kamaraj returned to the state secretariat in Chennai, he called a meeting with senior officers and asked them to work out a scheme where students would get free lunch at their schools. When the draft proposal was tabled before the cabinet, a couple of ministers and officers wondered why the state should bear such 'unproductive' expenditure.
To this, Kamaraj pointed out that this was the only way to increase the literacy rate, prevent dropouts and create a pool of scientists, engineers and technocrats. They would lay the foundation for a vibrant economy, transforming not just their villages but the entire country, he believed.
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