The multi-task National Program to provide a sachet of milk to every schoolchild under the Grama Sahkthi People’s Movement will commence on Tuesday (23). It would be a forerunner in an expedited mission to eradicate poverty, while making the country self-sufficient in liquid milk and also build a healthy future generation.

The first phase of the program to provide milk to more than half a million primary Grade schoolchildren will be inaugurated at a rural school, Nivitigala / Kajugaswatte ShasthrodayaVidyalaya in the Ratnapura District.

The National Program of providing milk to schoolchildren under President Maithripala Sirisena’s concept of creating a ‘Nutritious young generation of a nation bountiful with milk,’ is coupled with a plan to boost local milk production by providing incentives to dairy farmers.

Markus R Huet, Senior Project Manager of School Feeding Organization and Implementation, Food and Development Office of Malaysia said, Sri Lanka’s ‘Milk for Schoolchildren’ program was one of the best he has seen in developing countries.

“It has taken everything into consideration, the nutrition of children, achieving self-sufficiency in liquid milk and tackled environment issues by ensuring the immediate recycling of the empty sachets,” he said. The schoolchildren will wash and dispose the used polythene sachets in bins, for recycling.

The Cabinet of Ministers has approved a Cabinet Paper presented by the President and allocated Rs 1,000 million to initiate the program. Of the 1.7 million schoolchildren in Grades 1 to 5, more than half a million will receive a sachet of milk each, on every school day. There are 123 school days in the second and third terms this year and an estimated 503,290 students will receive a sachet of milk on the 123 school days. The cost of a sachet is Rs 21.

This program has been launched under the Grama Shakthi village empowerment national program launched three years ago by President Sirisena. Under this Private Public Partnership (PPP) program, small and middle level entrepreneurs in villages will be able to set up milk production units at village level with the support of the private sector.

President Sirisena is well aware of the need to improve local milk production. “No matter who says what, powdered milk is not suitable for human consumption. These are made by multinational companies. When I say these things, drug barons, tobacco companies, fraudulent pharmaceutical companies become upset and criticize me. But, no matter who gets angry with me, these things must be said. For a country to develop, local milk production must increase,” he said.

He often recalls the era in which the cow was part of almost every village household. “When I was a 15 year old student we had milk from the cow that was reared at home. When I wake up in the morning, my first task was to get a container and milk the cow. We referred to the cow as ‘milk mother’. It was only after I milked the cow and handed over the container to my mother that I would go to school,” the President said.

The school milk program is to be augmented by the Grama Shakthi village empowerment program. It is proposed to provide 15,000 cattle to selected 7,500 villagers to ensure continuous milk supply. Private sector companies that will produce the sachets will enter into buy-back agreements with the Grama Shakthi village units.

The Grama Shakthi movement aims at empowering people by initiating joint ventures between the village committees and private sector companies. Initially, the Government will provide funds to the village committees for technological support and buyback arrangements with the private sector. Once the project is launched, the Government will not intervene and it will be entirely for the village committees to carry out the project and reap the benefit.

Milk production is expected to increase with the additional demand for milk. During ancient times, Sri Lankan villages were self-sufficient in milk. However, at present milk production is around one third of the requirement and the balance met with imported milk powder. More than 100,000 metric tons of powdered milk is imported each year which costs over US$ 380 million annually.

While supplying cows to villagers and dairy farms, it is also essential to ensure continuous fodder supplies. Hence, local grass growers should be motivated and farmers encouraged to grow grass on paddy fields in between the Yala and Maha seasons. Smallholder dairy farmers dominate the livestock industry with an estimated 300,000 registered farms with an animal population of 1.3 million. Smallholder dairy farmers, who supply about 90 percent of the milk collected in the country are mostly from rural and plantation areas.

The school milk program has multiple aims as it envisages to increase the nutrition level of children in the country and make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in liquid milk by strengthening the local dairy industry.