What was greatly admired by the UN agencies and the World Bank, India’s midday meal scheme, as most effective initiative to improve child nutrition and school enrollment, is now becoming death traps due to our sinful apathy, mismanagement, no accountability and above all pure greed and corruption. It all started with Bihar, where 29 students of a government school, died after taking the midday meals and over 6 dozen have fallen sick. The midday meal served to students contained poisonous pesticide that was five times deadlier than the standard product sold in the market.
The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) scientists have found the toxic pesticide in the samples of oil, from the plastic container, food remains on the platter, and mixture of rice with vegetables on an aluminum utensil found at the cooking site of the school. An inquiry conducted by the Bihar Government has held the School principal responsible for the deaths, due to gross negligence.
It is believed that the Principal of the School, a lady, had allegedly forced the cook to use the oil despite the latter’s complaint that it had a pungent smell. The bodies of the children have been buried right in front of the school and locals have made it clear they would not allow the school to function again.
The Director of the midday meal scheme in the State said the school in the village would be merged with the nearest middle school having a better midday meal infrastructure. He also added that government have taken a policy decision not to run schools from rented and dilapidated structures and equip new units with full-fledged kitchens.
It is the typical case of locking the stables after the horses have fled away. It is amazing that the Government wakes-up, after a ghastly tragedy to make good the deficiencies, confirming the suspicion, that the powers that be, can get away with the murder or in this case child murders and pass on the blame on the lower functionaries or the Opposition parties.
What were the functionaries at the supervisory level, and immediate superiors of the headmasters were doing? Did they ever check the quality of the foodgrains or other food stuffs, and utensils supplied? At the national level, it would be worthwhile, to check up as to in how many schools, such incidents have taken place and were any instructions issued, about quality of the ingredients used in the preparation of the midday meal scheme.
A tragedy of a big enormity takes place and Bihar Chief Minister and Education Minister says that it is a conspiracy against the Government by the BJP and RJD. It only proves once again that the politicians will always blame their opponents for the failure of governance.
According to a report at least Rs 700 crore allocated for the mid-day meal scheme and around Rs 1,000 crore earmarked for up-grading government hospitals, is either lying unspent, or there was no proper documentation of how it was spent. This is apart from the Rs 462 crore meant for the midday meal scheme that Bihar returned to the Centre.
It would be useful, if CM could reveal, the names of the culprits involved and what was the motive in their killing, the innocent children, of the poor people? As if to salve its conscience and cover its negligence, in not having a mechanism put in place, to ensure that healthy and properly cooked food is served to the children, the Bihar Government has announced a grant of Rs. 2 lakh to the next of the kin of the deceased. But in all fairness, why blame only Bihar, the same story is repeated all over the country.
Nearly 100 students belonging to Neyveli Lignite Corporation Higher Secondary School in Cuddalore district, in Tamil Nadu, fell ill on July 17, 2013, after consuming the midday meal and were rushed to hospitals. Like all Governments, the Tamil Nadu Government has ordered an inquiry.
It is a usual ploy to order an inquiry, as if the Government did not know, what is wrong with the implementation of the otherwise excellent scheme. Umpteen inquiries have been ordered into the matters relating to the foodgrains and food matters, but nothing has come out, as the thinking of the decision makers is not clear and focused. To cut a long story short, there is hardly any State, which has been free from such maladies.
Our country, despite being a food surplus country, has still not been able to curb foodgrain wastage. A report reveals that each year, wheat equivalent to Australia’s annual grain production is wasted in India. As compared to this Australia has: 0.75 per cent of grain wasted. 21 million tonnes of wheat worth Rs 50,000 crore is lost every year, or 24 per cent of 2012-13 output. 88.31 million tonnes of wheat was produced by India in 2012-13.
India continues to be the second largest producer of wheat, yet it ranks 65 out of 122 countries on the World Hunger Index of 2012. The Global Survey Report says that 42 per cent of children in India are underweight and it’s the home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world: a blaring 216 million. The cruel irony is that 75 per cent of the Indian population suffers from hunger and malnutrition in varying degrees. Rotting food is not something new. It is going to last forever, as there is hardly any punishment worth the name in India, to anybody, who enters the Government service. It is for the simple reason, that no Government has the guts or will to sack the indifferent, corrupt and criminals, as all the rights belong to the criminals and not the victims. But no Government takes steps either preventive or punitive, so that such contingencies do not arise.
All State Governments, and above all Bihar, can learn from each other and copy the good points. The Bihar school tragedy has spurred the Karnataka government into restarting its exercise of checking the quality of midday meals, as well as to have quality audit on ingredients and vegetables and conducting random checks on schools, to ensure that the children are served the best plate of food rich in nutrition. It has made it compulsory that students should not be served meal until two teachers of the school have passed the food.
The government will launch a new scheme to look into infrastructure issues that include storage facilities, kitchens and quality drinking water. It will have a special team comprising of nutritionist, food inspector, dietician, doctor and members from drug-testing laboratories, to ensure the best quality of food for the children. The Government should remember that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The past cannot be changed, forgotten or erased, but the lessons learnt from it, can prepare us for a better tomorrow.
(The writer is former CBI director and can be contacted at [email protected])
Some facts about the scheme
p The scheme is becoming death trap due to sinful apathy, mismanagement, no accountability and above all pure greed and corruption
p The 26 lakh cook cum helpers involved in the scheme are underpaid, as they take home Rs 1,100 a month, which is a paltry sum compared to the huge responsibility they shoulder
p There is total lack of godowns at the school level for storing the foodgrains and vegetables safe. Better infrastructure for kitchens, clean and hygienic surroundings also lack to ensure safe and healthy food for children.
p Temples and private institutions successfully provide meals to thousands of people every day, why shouldn’t the government draw inspiration from them in managing the things
Findings of evaluation study by the Planning Commission
Performance Evaluation of Cooked Midday Meal Scheme Study conducted by Programme Evaluation Organisation of the Planning Commission in 2010 had found:
p The programme has resulted in diversion of attention of the teachers and students, which results in loss of studies.
p In general, visible shortage of basic infrastructural facilities and manpower (that are crucial for the success of the Cooked Midday Meal programme) were noted.
p Most of the states did not follow the guidelines to deliver foodgrains at the school point by PDS dealer, thereby resulting in the leakage of foodgrains. There have been instances where due to long supply chain, foodgrains supplied got adulterated and pilfered.
p While the cooked Midday Meal Scheme seems to have contributed to an increase in the attendance in schools across the country, it does not seem to have any significant impact on fresh enrolments in sample schools.
Apart from it the Supreme Court Commissioners have also been monitoring the Midday Meal Scheme. They have monitored seven states including Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Odisha and West Bengal during 2010-11. Their main recommendations point out that there is delay in release of funds to school/implementing agencies and proper infrastructure for midday meals including cooking, sheds, storage space, drinking water, ventilation, utensils etc is not there