What ails the world's largest school feeding scheme?
A string of incidents across the country starting with the death of 27 children due to poisoning in a government primary school in Saran district in Bihar has put the spotlight back on how the world's largest school feeding scheme reaching out to about 12 crore children in over 12.65 lakh schools/EGS centres across the country is being implemented.
The mid-day meal scheme was introduced in its present form in 1995 to tackle the problem of malnutrition among children and boost school attendance. Children do come to school and meals get served, but quite often, terrible accidents happen. Sometimes hygiene plays the devil, sometimes adulteration. What caused all the harm last month was reportedly a can of pesticides.
Investigating teams of doctors found organophosphorus compounds, mostly found in insecticides, in the meals—plates of rice, soybean and lentils. The lunch killed 27 children—all between age four and 12—at a government school in Chhapra district in Bihar, about 80km from the state capital Patna, while more than a dozen are still hospitalized.
The mid-day meal scheme across the country is going to drains for various reasons. After the Bihar tragedy, parents and children across the country have become skeptical and scared when it comes to having that "mid-day meal" in the school. In some parts, rotten eggs and lizards have been found in the stock of raw materials provided for the mid-day meals. In some other parts, the Sarpanch has decided to discontinue children from consuming the food provided after a lizard was found in cooked food. Mid-day meal schemes across the country are being reviewed and investigated as part of precautionary measure preventing more children from falling prey to these unhygienic and absolutely unhealthy food.
While Oxfam India has demanded a full investigation and improvements to the free mid-day meal scheme folllowing the Bihar deaths, it has also pointed out that warning bells are continuously being ignored in Bihar and in other States as well. Oxfam India’s partner in Bihar, Koshish Trust, has previously criticised the way the mid-day meal scheme was being implemented in the State.
The Trust had most recently been part of a state-wide survey for the Supreme Court, which oversees the free school meals program, which found that the program was not being implemented properly because of lack of funds, poor quality food and highly inadequate monitoring of just a handful of schools once or twice a year. The Trust also criticised poor storage facilities and lack of proper utensils and plates.
Serious lack of accountability in the implementation on the ground, especially in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has been the bane of the scheme's implementation. The most disturbing outcome reported has been the reduction in the quantum of food served to students or simply not serving meals. In many schools in Uttar Pradesh, the amount of food given was much lower than required by the government guidelines; many schools in Bihar didn’t even serve meals for months.
The diversion of funds and foodgrains, teachers preparing meals and spending less time in teaching and lack of food hygiene were also flagged in a parliamentary committee report, underlining institutional apathy and lack of concerted efforts in the implementation of the mid-day meal scheme.
It is not that the mid-day meal scheme is not without its benefits. A good case in point could be Tamil Nadu’s experience with its noon-cum-nutritious meal. The scheme improved enrolment and retention of children in schools and also checked drop-out rates. Another success story on mid-day meals is that of Akshaya Patra in Bangalore with its highly professional management and operating model, the quality and delivery of services, and innovation of three-tier kitchens based on gravity flow.
It is about time that we looked at these good models on the ground and improved the implementation of the scheme across the country.