Create a separate system for Mid-Day Meals Scheme
Mid Day Meals Scheme - Chukka Ramaiah - The purpose of mid-day meal scheme in schools is to provide nutritious food to young children so that basically they assimilate what we teach. We know that there is a direct relationship between healthy mind and healthy body. It’s a scientifically proven fact that no child with an empty stomach can digest what we offer in the classroom. In fact, it is the reason why the government has been offering this scheme to particularly low-income groups. Without exception, all children attending government schools come from below poverty line. In any government school that we visit, we can spot only one or two from forward communities
The purpose of mid-day meal scheme in schools is to provide nutritious food to young children so that basically they assimilate what we teach. We know that there is a direct relationship between healthy mind and healthy body. It’s a scientifically proven fact that no child with an empty stomach can digest what we offer in the classroom. In fact, it is the reason why the government has been offering this scheme to particularly low-income groups. Without exception, all children attending government schools come from below poverty line. In any government school that we visit, we can spot only one or two from forward communities. Even this one or two invariably belong to politically weaker sections. This is something different to what the US Government does to their children.
In the US, they provide lunch to all children. Since neighbourhood system is in vogue, both the rich and the poor attend the same school. The government achieves more than one purpose through this lunch service. They cultivate table manners to all children and supply right amount of calories. Unlike in India, one can find children from different strata of the society in a single school. In a school there could be Afro-Americans, Mexicans, Asians, etc. As a result, providing a lunch has become a means to arriving at social justice. Of course, they charge the rich people for providing lunch to their children. The charges also vary depending on parental income. Since everybody is involved in this scheme, there has been an effective check on factors like quality of the food, sanitation facilities, etc. Unfortunately we do not have such kind of vigilance to guard the process in India. Here you can supply any kind of food and no questions are asked. Government is the guardian. It means no one is the guardian.
I am told that even though hundreds of crores of rupees have been sanctioned by the Central government, we have failed miserably to furnish kitchens with better infra in schools. Still cooking is being done under the trees in the open grounds somewhere near the school. In this regard, the record of the state government of Tamil Nadu is definitely much better than ours. They have at least constructed good kitchens though maintenance is still an issue with them.
In most of the schools in Andhra Pradesh we still use wood as fuel to cook rice. There is no gas supply. Self-help groups have been entrusted with the job of cooking and serving. The government is not giving any mobilization advance to them to start with. They bring money to interest at the rate of 2% or 3% and initially spend and then look at the government officials for getting the sanction. Ironically, the same government of Andhra Pradesh is paying thousands of crores of rupees to big contractors even before they start their operations as mobilization advance. Giving the responsibility to small self groups is not objectionable. Not giving them advance amount to meet their expenditure is certainly objectionable.
If we look at the utensils they use we can easily understand the significance of what I am trying to say. Years together they have been using the same old, rusted, twisted, cracked utensils where hygiene is the first causality. That is the reason why we see children reporting vomiting, diarrhoea and other such diseases immediately after consuming the food served in Mid-Day Meals scheme. No one is thinking of replacing the old ones with new utensils at least once in two years. The Civil Supplies Department gives them provisions said to be of the least quality. Practically there is no supervision of anybody worth the name over this entire process. Can’t we supply high quality provisions to these schemes? Why should we throw the leftovers to these children that are there on the last rung of the ladder?
If we see children standing in queue waiting to be served we can easily observe that there is no dignity in the process. We treat them as if they are beggars. There is no involvement of civil society. There is no responsible person to taste the food and certify that it is of good standard. There is no social audit. I think in the interest of the entire society the government should create a separate a system to run Mid-day Meals scheme. Instead of asking one of the teachers to also look at this additional responsibility, there should be separate managers solely responsible and accountable for this system.
This manager must interact with the civil society and invite initiatives from non official bodies consisting of all sections of people. These bodies must visit the schools and find out how the scheme is being run. If at all such a body exists and starts functioning they will come to know and control even the wastage. How is dishwashing taking place?, How much quantity of food is thrown away? These issues could give them sufficient clues about the standard of food that is being served. When I visited one school in Nalgonda district children were eating in darkness. There was no generator and there was no power supply.
I am also told that different government organizations are following different set of indicators in the allocation of money to this scheme. The schools run by the State government are not getting amounts on par with Nayodaya schools. Why should we have different set of norms on allocation of funds to food while serving children in the same region? We know that we have regulatory mechanism for drug safety. Precaution is always better than cure. I think it’s time we brought a food safety regulating mechanism. I feel it will act as strong deterrent to those that try to either dilute or get benefit out of this.
Good intention, bad execution
The Union Government is planning to table the much touted Food Security Bill to provide food and nutritional security to all of its citizens in the present monsoon session of Parliament. The Bill is viewed as an election ploy by the Opposition which suggested a number of amendments to it. But before taking it up for discussion, the government and the Opposition should keep in mind the tragedy that struck at a remote village in Bihar where 24 innocent children have died because of alleged poisoning of Mid-Day Meal that was provided to them. There have been such glaring examples of students falling ill, hospitalized after taking the food in almost every state in the last ten years of its implementation. For public consumption, both officials and politicians are applying some balm and washing off their hands immediately.
The Mid-Day Meal Scheme, which seeks to reduce the dropout rate and attract children in villages to schools, was mishandled by almost all the governments and agencies. More than ten crore school-going children have been provided the so-called nutritious food every day. The guidelines issued both by the MHRD and the state governments have been given a go-by which had a telling effect on the health of crores of students. Unless a serious foolproof arrangement is made, incidents such as Bihar would continue to recur.