The Bihar mid-day meal tragedy taking life of 20 children and leaving another 30 hospital ridden was in making for some time as the scheme implementers have turned a blind eye towards warning from local communities.
In March this year, the HRD ministry had told Bihar government categorically that the food being served to children in schools was of bad quality and cooked in unhygienic conditions. “Children, parents and community members were not happy with quality of food,” said the ministry’s appraisal note for approving mid-day meal funds to Bihar for 2013-14.
Bihar, where only 50% of enrolled children get cooked food as against the national average of 73%, was also found lacking in provide clean space to keep cooked meals. Most schools served often average quality of food items in unhygienic condition and food was cooked and kept in open and dirty ground, the note said. In absence of utensils, the children were served food on paper sheets.
“There have been instances of insects being found in cooked mi-day meal in the state,” an official said, adding that parents have also complained of serving stale food to children. And it could be the probable reason that Bihar does not conduct regular health checks on children to evaluate impact of the food being served on their health.
The HRD ministry had asked the state governments to constitute a committee of mothers to supervise the quality of mid-day meal in schools. The ministry’s appraisal note says that such committees were non-existent in many of the schools and there was no third party inspection or monitoring of the food children were getting.
This was in addition to no regular cooked meal service. The ministry asked Bihar to provide cooked meal for 167 days in 2012-13 at primary level but the state could ensure food for only 134 days.
The mid-day meal scheme is world’s biggest food scheme in which every day 10.68 children in 12.12 lakh schools get cooked food. The scheme costing over Rs. 11,000 crore in 2012-13 covers children till class VIII or upper primary level.
The ministry’s internal appraisal shows that most of the southern states are doing much better in implementing the scheme that malnutrition hit poorer northern states. Mothers engaged as Bhojan Mata in Uttarakhand and as Saraswati Vahini in Jharkhand had improved implementation. And, public participation through Tithi Bhojan in Gujarat had provided effective community monitoring.
“It all depends on good management and political importance given to the scheme,” said former National Advisory Council member Harsh Mander, who has also been appointed as food commissioner by the Supreme Court. “Corruption is also a reason for poor implementation”.
The schemes performance is poor in states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, where efforts have been made to replace cooked meal with packaged fortified meal. However, the deaths in Bihar would strengthen the argument in favour of packaged food as reduces complexities involved with storing and cooking food grains. “Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra are examples of why packaged fortified meals should not be provided,” he said.
A report by Delhi based financial monitoring group, Accountability Initiative, in June 2013 showed poor management of food grains by the district administration in Nalanda and Purnea, the two districts selected for the study. “Around 47 percent schools in first quarter and 52 % schools in second in Purnea had fewer grains than needed,” the report, titled Paisa, said, pointing similar trend in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.