The mid-day meal (MDM) scheme, a flagship programme of the central government, has been in news since 23 children died and dozens fell ill after eating food served at a government school in Bihar’s Saran district. HRD minister MM Pallam Raju spoke with Vanita Srivastava about taking collective responsibility for the tragedy and benefits of replicating the Akshya Patra model.
How will you re-build the confidence of parents and children towards the mid-day meal scheme? How would you prevent recurrence of such an incident?
Our additional secretary had visited Saran and has submitted his report. The more important aspect is how to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. We have decided to form a national-level committee to look into several critical aspects of the scheme like hygiene, safety and nutrition with the goal of strengthening it. The committee will have experts and also representatives from all the relevant ministries. I will also be writing to the MPs to convene a special meeting of their district vigilance and monitoring committees to review the MDM scheme in their districts.
The Bihar government said that it had not got any alert on MDM from the Union government.
I do not want to get into the nuances of communication but alerts were sounded on the deficiencies. It is not a question of finger pointing or a blame game, we need to take collective responsibility for strengthening the system. I would have been equally concerned if this had happened in Andhra Pradesh instead of Bihar. They are our children, and we should understand this. The mid-day meal is a well-intentioned scheme and has to be implemented effectively.
Do you agree that there is a need for active participation of parents in the scheme?
Yes, there is a need to have a greater community mobilisation and involvement of parents. However, MDM remains primarily the responsibility of the school management committees. I hope these committees will now take more interest in involving themselves in monitoring the quality and safety aspects.
What about packaged food. Do you think it is better than hot cooked food?
There has been a debate on hot cooked food versus packaged food. The packaged food would surely be useful for remote areas where transportation is difficult but we cannot do anything in this regard since the court has asked us to provide hot cooked food to children. Also I think our children prefer hot food.
The MDM scheme is hamstrung by infrastructural constraints. There are also serious allegations about the scheme being mired by gender and caste discrimination.
The infrastructural loopholes are certainly something we have to work on. We must build better kitchens and sheds, otherwise food will continue to be cooked in makeshift structures, which could be unhygienic and unsafe. Regarding the reports on caste and gender discrimination in mid-days meals, I would say they are serious but isolated cases or aberrations. The matter was brought up in the consultative committee and we are looking into it.
Do you think a centralised model of mid-day meal scheme can work for India?
Centralised cooking arrangements like that of Akshya Patra work very well where the logistics are not daunting. We would like the Akshya Patra model to be replicated wherever possible. This model helps in optimising cost, effort and resources.
Would you like to use technology for monitoring MDM?
I am personally against micro management. Trust and responsibility should be bestowed on the authorities and those responsible for implementation. If the district collector feels the need to monitor the process closely, technological intervention can be used to strengthen the feedback mechanism.