The death of 23 children in Bihar after eating food served as part of the mid-day meal scheme is a very sad event. Forensic investigations at two independent laboratories have found monocrotophos, a lethal pesticide, in very large concentration in the oil that was used. The cook and children, it is reported, had protested to the teacher but she had paid no heed. She did not taste the cooked food — a mandatory government instruction — before serving it to the children.
The incident has raised many questions about the mid-day meal (MDM). It was introduced in schools on the orders of the Supreme Court in 2004. The intent was to ensure that children do not stay hungry at school, that their school attendance improved, and that their overall state of nutrition also improved. Social cohesion and breakdown of caste hierarchies was also an indirect benefit of the scheme. Evaluation studies indicate that the MDM has succeeded on these counts in many schools, the limitations of quality and hygiene notwithstanding.
The current programme is a partnership between the Centre and the states. Foodgrains come from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) through the state food corporations and are delivered at schools by transport contractors. The school management committees are provided R3.37 per day per Class I – V child and R5 per day per child in Classes VI-VIII, to meet the conversion costs that include the purchase of pulses, vegetables, oil, cooking fuel, etc.
Cooks engaged for every 100 children are paid R1,000 a month for 10 months of the year. Kitchen sheds were sanctioned. Utensils, etc, are provided as part of the scheme and there is a provision for replacement every five years. Overall, the programme is minimalist with the resource provision inadequate to maintain high quality and standards, especially in schools with low enrolment. Since resources for management are inadequate for setting up a separate structure like in Tamil Nadu, most states take the assistance of school headmasters as members of the school committee for the management of the scheme. They too have been protesting about having to do non-academic work.
Many schools still manage to serve a decent meal, especially where the school has good infrastructure, student strength is high, and members of the school management committee are active. There are, however, complaints about the purchase of goods and instances of over-reporting in schools. There are also complaints about the quality of foodgrains that the FCI issues and what finally reaches the schools.
The problem is worse in new schools that have opened in compliance with the Right to Education norm of a school within one kilometre. Many of them still do not have land or a building of their own, leave aside a kitchen shed. Financing, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), has not been of an order that all infrastructure gaps can be bridged, especially in states with a large infrastructure deficit. Tagging to an existing nearby school is the only temporary option.
What is the solution? Akshya Patra-like large kitchens that are hygienic cannot cover over a million villages in the country. The school-level infrastructure, including water, sanitation, cleanliness through untied grants, will need to be augmented on a war-footing and the norms for conversion costs, honoraria of cooks, construction of kitchen sheds, utensils, seating arrangements for children, hiring of professional nutritionists, food inspectors, managers, etc, will have to be provided at market comparable rates. The cooked food must be tasted by the cook, the teacher and a parent before it is given to the children.
To improve accountability, school management committees need to be strengthened and ways to set up a dedicated management structure for better cooked food will have to be evolved. We cannot afford minimalist provisions that help in complying with the law only in form and not spirit. A more substantive compliance requires the willingness of the State to provide the resources needed to augment school infrastructure and ensure quality and hygiene in the mid-day meal scheme. A community accountability framework seems to be the most useful and investments to build this are needed.
Privatisation is no solution. Though the task of serving quality cooked meals is a daunting one, it is worth the effort, given its impact on enrolment, attendance, hunger, and social harmony.
Amarjeet Sinha is a civil servant
The views expressed by the author are personal