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Navneet Sharma, Hindustan Times
Chandigarh, May 16, 2013
The union ministry of human resource development (MHRD) has pulled up the Haryana government for using the services of Iskcon Foundation, a renowned non-government organisation (NGO), for supplying midday meal (MDM) to children of rural schools in the state.
A joint review mission team of the MHRD for the midday meal programme has, in its report, stated that the state government had violated the guidelines by allowing the centralised kitchen run by the organisation to cook and supply meals to such schools. As per the programme guidelines, a centralised kitchen can be built for supplying meals in only those urban schools where there is no space for construction of kitchen-cum-stores.

SCHEME GUIDELINES VIOLATED
The foundation has an agreement with the school education department that supplies meal to 55,000 children in government schools in Thanesar, Pehowa and Ladwa blocks of Kurukshetra district. The kitchen-cum-stores in several rural schools in these blocks are lying unused due to the centralised arrangement.

"The ministry had informed the state government in 2011-12 that the guidelines had been violated and categorically directed it to entrust the cooking of meal to respective schools. The directions are not being followed," sources told Hindustan Times.

Though the state government has been showcasing the society's centralised kitchen as an "effective model", the findings of the fourth joint review mission led by MHRD joint secretary Rita Chatterjee are a setback for it. "The scheme takes care of larger issues of social cohesiveness, community participation, empowerment of women, besides feeding children, which cannot be ensured where food is supplied by centralised kitchens," MHRD additional secretary Amarjit Singh wrote to the state government last month.

YUMMY, BUT NOT SUFFICIENT
In its report, the review team, which visited several schools in Kurukshetra and Kaithal districts in March, has stated that the ISKCON food, while well-cooked and tasty, was not meeting nutritional requirements prescribed by the Supreme Court as vegetables did not form part of the food served on any day.

"As cooking begins early in the morning, the food tends to go bad by the time children eat it, especially in the summer," the team observed. Raising the issue of utilisation of foodgrains, the report said the records at the centralised kitchen indicated that more foodgrains were used vis-à-vis number of meals served, supply was not as per actual the number of children and lesser quantity of meal provided. The foundation also supplies food in Gurgaon, Palwal and Faridabad districts.

HYGIENE CONCERNS REMAIN
At several schools in neighbouring Kaithal district where food is prepared within premises by cooks engaged by the school authorities, the cooking is done in the open.

"Dogs and monkeys were trying to prowl upon meal…..though plates and spoons are available in all schools, the team was surprised to find them kept under lock and key whereas children were eating out of small boxes brought from their homes," the report stated.

The review mission has, however, appreciated the steps taken by the state authorities for the maintenance and storage of buffer stock of foodgrains in schools, purchase of storage bins and engagement of people of weaker sections as cook-cum-helpers.

On being contacted, an education department officer said the govenrment had informed the ministry about the agreement with the NGO. "As for quality, quantity and nutrition value of food and use kitchen sheds, the department is examining them. Our officers will visit the schools to look into all these issues. A detailed reply will be sent to the ministry," he said.

We give hot, nutritious food: Iskcon
Iskcon deputy general manager, Haryana, Balwan Singh said that the foundation was providing hot, nutritious food to schoolchildren. "There is no complaint from the children or schools about the food quality or quantity. The review team seemed happy. The state gives us some money but we contribute our funds," he said. Singh expressed dissatisfaction with the estimates of food requirement given by school teachers. "As many children do not show up, food gets wasted in several schools," he said.