The Mid-Day meal Epidemic Spreads Across India-A Black Mark on India’s Growth Rate……. By : Himadrish Suwan

The Mid-Day meal Epidemic Spreads Across India-A Black Mark on India’s Growth Rate…….

 

By : Himadrish Suwan

India’s latest midday meal scheme disaster, which claimed the lives of 23 students and a cook, at a primary school in the eastern state of Bihar, has once again shifted focus to the quality of meals served as part of the government program, which is intended to encourage the country’s poor to send their children to school.

According to official data, the midday meal program, which was initiated in the 1960s to provide food to school-going children without burdening their parents, and to reduce dropout rates, currently caters to about 120 million children at more than 1.2 million schools across the country.

23 children died in Chappra, Bihar after they ate the Midday Meal served to them in their school. Investigations found that the meal contained poisonous substance organophosphorus in oil samples collected from the school. While this case caught the eye of the media, it definitely is not the first of its kind case. Midday meal has had the dubious distinction for being more unhealthy, with insects and reptiles being found in the food to the children falling sick after eating the meal, and even resulting in death.

As India strives hard to achieve high nutrition delivery for its children, and also add more value to education for the underprivileged .Will India ever achieve this Target? The latest incident is a harsh indictment of a program reported to be plagued by corruption, pilfering and periodic cases of food-poisoning, and could well cripple the government’s objective of improving the health of, and providing better educational facilities, to children of the country’s poor.

Indian state, following a Supreme Court ruling in 2001, the scheme has been marred by controversies.

According to reports, instances of corruption are rampant with funds earmarked for the program being siphoned off by people appointed to manage the scheme. And, a lack of funds to develop the infrastructure required to administer such a program on a nationwide scale is also a factor in the haphazard management of the midday meal scheme, according to a World Food Programme report released.

A hot cooked nutritious meal was also thought to have been a selling point to persuade poor families to send their children to school and not pull them out to start earning as child laborers. But the tragedy in Bihar has left many families asking if it is not safer to keep their children at home. The situation is equally bad in the national capital. A series of RTIs filed  has revealed that during the past three years, the majority of mid-day meals being served to the 11.5 lakh children in Delhi has failed tests conducted by the government.

In 2010-11, 99 per cent or just five of the 466 samples tested passed the quality and nutrition test. In 2011-12, some 27 samples were found to be usable out of the 541 samples that were tested. And in the last academic year, the situation was marginally better with 50 of the 288 samples passing the quality test. This year itself, there were 16 complaints. In 50 per cent of these cases, warnings were given and corrective action ordered – but was it implemented is the big question.

“If guidelines had been flouted, we will take a decision on what happened. A tragedy has happened and no one should be spared,” said Jitin Prasada, Minister of State, Ministry of Human Resources and Development (HRD).

A vast majority of Indians, fed up with rampant corruption, have already taken to the streets of Delhi two years ago during the Anna Hazare agitation. Now as the initial findings of the Bihar tragedy indicates serious lapses, the question is: will it take another round of nationwide protests before our lawmakers begin to fix the system?

At least 39 students fell ill after consuming food, contaminated by a dead scorpion, served under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme at their school in Orissa’s Dhenkanal district. Latika Behera (11) allegedly spotted the scorpion in the served potato-soya curry. As soon as the children consumed the mid-day meal, they began complaining of uneasiness and started vomiting.  They were immediately rushed to the hospital where 36 children have been discharged while three are still undergoing treatment.

The mid-day meal scheme in Orissa has seen many controversies in the past, the biggest of them coming to the fore in 2011 when substandard supply of dal was reported from different parts of the state. The Rs-700 crore scandal, popularly known as the Dal scam cost the then Women and Child Development Minister, Pramilla Mallick her job. The minister was also found to have made her brother, who ran an NGO, a member of the state level monitoring committee for the scheme

A July 2013 survey of 14 schools, including in Nalanda and Purnea districts of Bihar, by Accountability Initiative, found the following defects in the state’s Mid Day Meal Scheme.

– Inefficiency in fund flows to schools causing poor quality implementation. Only 60 per cent enrolled students received daily meals.

– Mid-day meal not served regularly.

-Inadequate staff, weak monitoring systems, lack of feedback from schools to districts.

– Fund tracking solutions difficult to evaluate, impossible to identify bottlenecks.

– Cook-cum-helper, one per school, is not paid in time. Most cooks paid after two months. In some districts, cooks paid after six months.

 

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the family of the victims. However  it is insensitive, since you cannot put value in monetary terms to a human life, especially that of a kid. There is no guarantee that the money will reach the families as promised. There is a great chance of the files being help up in red tape. The Chief Minister has already announced a probe into the incident. However the real question is will this be another report that will lie unopened and forgotten in some Minister’s office?

Media coverage about the unsatisfactory state of the MDM programme in many other states as well has questioned its rationale. The media has questioned the states’ ability to manage such a programme across all elementary schools.

Evaluation studies indicate many schools do serve a good meal. Improvement is needed and must be attempted. From advocating large, hygienic kitchens like Akshay Patra, to closing the programme, to switching to food supplements in packaged form, to cash transfers, many solutions have been suggested. Some commentators have deemed it impossible to remove governance deficits and corruption.

The MDM works as a decentralised programme, funded jointly by the Central and state governments. While the food grain comes from Food Corporation of India through the state food corporations, it is the School Management Committee with the headmaster, Panchayati Raj Institutions or other community representatives, and three fourths representation of parents of children studying in that school, that is given the responsibility to buy pulses, vegetables, oil, spices, firewood, and so on as conversion cost.

Parents are seen as the greatest stakeholder and that is why the programme structure provided for the SMCs/Mothers’ Committees to have a lead role in the management and the accountability framework of the programme.

Cooks paid Rs 1,000 a month and utensils provided as part of the scheme come through programme funds. Non-governmental organisations are assigned the responsibility to run the programme in a few schools. Akshay Patra-like NGOs have also been assigned the responsibility in many states. They will begin shortly in Bihar as well.

Is the MDM needed? Does it serve any purpose? Why not packaged food? These questions call for an answer. Depsite the reference to unsatisfactory implementation reported, studies have established the role of the MDM in increasing school attendance rates.

Government schools have the largest segment of poor children coming from underprivileged households where food security at home is an issue. The hot cooked meal, with all its limitations, does hold back children in schools in larger numbers. Studies have also indicated how many children, especially in states with a very high percentage of poor families, come hungry to school. MDM does make a difference in the lives of these children.

Why is the quality poor? First, there are many new schools that have come up in partial compliance to the Right to Education Act requirement of a school within one kilometre.

Unfortunately, many of these schools have either no or very rudimentary infrastructure. Availability of land for these schools is also an issue, forcing new schools to function in single room community halls, community verandahs or, in a few cases, even under the open sky. Where the classrooms are inadequate and land unavailable, guaranteeing MDM without a kitchen shed or store for food compromises the cooking arrangements. We must immediately tag such schools to the nearest well-endowed school till such time as adequate land and infrastructure is available for such schools.

 If this incident continues to spread over the nation in every nooks and corners it will have a direct threat to Nations Development,Education,Society and more children will be malnourished and if they will remain malnourished the future of India is very Unsecure and it is a really a matter of urgent and top most concern. 

After this Incident a big question rises that  are we not “Child Sensitive” Can’t we provide better nutrition to the poor rather than politicizing every concern issue.

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