Nutrition and attendance, these are the two cornerstones in the drive for the universalisation of education. And it was precisely these two reasons that the scheme to provide mid-day meals (MDM) was launched in State-run schools.
This way poor children would be encouraged to attend school regularly and second, they would receive adequate nutrition. But unfortunately, as two back-to-back incidents, the first in Bihar and the second in Rajasthan, show there is something going very wrong with the MDM.
The scheme is the world’s largest school-feeding programme, reaching about 12 crore children in over 12.65 lakh schools across the country.
The Centre provides 75% of the total allocations while the states provide the rest. Even though the allocations have consistently gone up over the years — from Rs 7,324 crore for the mid-day meal scheme in 2007-08 to Rs 13,215 crore for 2013-14 — the quality, as the recent incidents show, has suffered.
While 23 students died after having their meal in a government school in Bihar recently, on Tuesday, 78 students of an upper primary school in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district were hospitalised after a lizard was found in their food.
A day earlier, a dead mouse was found in the drinking water container and insects in rice and wheat at the Ulela village government secondary school in the same district. These tragedies were waiting to happen: days after the Bihar tragedy, the ministry of human resource development had compiled a list of unresolved complaints about the scheme from 2011 to July 19, 2013.
It found there were 106, ranging from inedible meals, mismanagement, misappropriation of funds and corruption among others. Uttar Pradesh, which incidentally launched a hi-tech tracking system last year, tops the list with 25 complaints followed by Bihar (16), Haryana (11), Madhya Pradesh (10).
The data also shows that the number of complaints has also been on the rise: while 36 complaints reached the ministry in 2011, there were 44 in 2012 and has already touched 26 this year.
A 2013 report by the Accountability Initiative gives a snapshot of what needs to be done to fix the system: first, there must be direct delivery of foodgrains to schools like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have done; second, streamlining of record-keeping of the last-mile of food grain delivery and third, mobilising the communities to monitor MDM.
After the Bihar incident, there were reports that children are refusing to eat meals at school. This suggests a serious lack of confidence in the scheme and that a well-intentioned project has now become unpalatable to many who need proper nutrition and education the most.