When Ranjan Naik, a Class 2 student of Paljore village in Orissa’s Kalahandi district, returned to school on June 17 after summer vacation, he did not get his mid-day meal.
The meals did not materialise for about a month-and-a-half. Like Naik, many schoolchildren in Kalahandi as well as Malkangiri and Keonjhar, two other tribal-dominated districts, did not get the meals during this duration.
According to 2010-2011 figures, out of 5.7 million schoolchildren covered under the school meal programme in Orissa, the three backward districts account for 568,555 children.
Ranjan’s father Rameshwar Naik said, “The mid-day meal programme was crippled.”
Social worker Bijaylaxmi Routray said, “Many schools in the Keonjhar district failed to serve meals to the children several weeks after the vacation.”
Malkangiri resident Sourav Ranjan Das said: “Many poor students will stop coming to school if they do not get food.”
What tripped the world’s largest school meal programme, covering around 120 million children in the country, in Orissa?
“Policy changes at the top level without preparedness on the ground resulted in mismanagement,” a state women and child development (W&CD) department official who did not want to be named said.
The W&CD department ran the central government-funded programme, which aims to protect children from classroom hunger, increase school enrollment and literacy, till the state government decided to hand it over to the school and mass education (S&ME) department.
The decision came after irregularities were detected in January in the supply of dal for various food programmes including mid-day meals.
The schools were told to open joint accounts in the name of the headmaster/ school committee/ self-help group so that funds could be transferred to the accounts for mid-day meals.
Many schools could not open accounts due to various reasons and authorities had stopped all other avenues to run the programme, said an official source.
What’s more, confusion among government officials derailed the school meal programme, declared an entitlement based on Supreme Court orders.
Orissa W&CD minister Anjali Behera admitted there had been “some problems”. “But it has been sorted out and the programme is running smoothly.”
Behera said some officials in her department did not implement the school meal programme thinking the S&ME department would do it. “They later resumed implementing it, till the S&ME department formally took over the responsibility.”
Incidentally, Orissa acted after Rajkishore Mishra, the state advisor to the commissioners of the Supreme Court, wrote to chief secretary BK Patnaik in the last week of July.
Mishra and his representatives visited schools in the three districts and found the school meal programme had stopped after the summer vacation.
“This is a clear violation of Supreme Court orders. As you are aware, this is a critical time (lean period) for the farming community and also tribals… Discontinuation of MDM (mid-day meal) during this time of the year is quite damaging,” Mishra said in his letter.