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Risking 35,000 students' health

punjab Updated: May 24, 2013 22:43 IST
Deepa Sharma Sood
Deepa Sharma Sood
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Tucked away in one of the many non-descript, dusty bylanes of Sherpur, there are about 20 persons who cook food for 35,000 government school students in the district every morning.

To ensure the food is supplied in time, the workers begin as early as 4am. However, the conditions here are deplorable - unsanitary conditions risk students, who will eat this food later in the day, to several diseases.

To begin with, the cooks don't follow any of the guidelines issued by the health department to ensure the food is contamination-free. The contractor has been directed to ensure workers remove their shoes before entering the kitchen and use another pair of shoes, but to no avail.

Most of the workers also do not wear the compulsory gloves and caps. For hygienic cooking, the deputy commissioner had directed that three teachers and a medical officer - selected on a rotational basis - would visit the centralised kitchen. But still the kitchen, with its damp walls, moist air and defunct fire extinguishers, best describes all that is wrong with mid-day meals.

Even the water used to cook the food is not filtered, though the health department had issued guidelines to the contractor to install a water purifier in March this year.

Kitchen untraceable
When the HT team visited the centralised mid-day meal kitchen on Friday morning, none of the four government officials - three teachers and a health department officer - deputed to oversee operations were there on the spot.

While the HT team had reached the spot at 6am, two teachers came to the kitchen at 6.15 am. Asked how they got late, the teachers said they found it difficult to trace the kitchen as there were no directions, nor was there a board outside the kitchen.

The three teachers who visit the kitchen on a rotational basis have to taste the food before it is sent to government schools. The third teacher from government school, Birmi, reached the centralised kitchen late. She, too, found it difficult to find the kitchen.

While the three schoolteachers were there, the medical officer could not be seen on the spot till the time the HT team was there till 6.45am. A worker, who did not wish to be named, said, “Medical officers usually visit the kitchen at 5 am as we start cooking the food at 4 am. But no medical officer has visited the kitchen till 7 am today. May be she was not able to locate the kitchen.”

However, when contacted, Surinder Kaur, the medical officer of the health department who had to visit the kitchen, said she had reached the mid-day meal kitchen at 6am and left at 8.30 am. “Daal, roti and rice were cooked. I have submitted the report to the civil surgeon,” she said.

COOKING ON A TIMEBOMB
While the food cooked at the centralised mid-day meal kitchen continues to risk the lives of students, its building, too, reflects on the government's attitude towards the safety of its workers.

Damp walls and fire-fighting equipment that have passed the expiry date are the order of the day at the centralised kitchen. Exposed live wires add to the two-floor structure that houses the kitchen.

Sanjay Dhawan, the kitchen contractor, said he was aware that there was dampness in the building and the water purifier had not been installed. “Cooks do not remove their shoes outside the kitchen, so in March we received guidelines from the health department. We are trying our best to implement them. Further, we don't get even a single holiday in a week. So, from June 1, we will start with the repair work and work on all the discrepancies.,” he said. “We will install the water purifier as soon as possible.”

Additional deputy commissioner (development) Rishi Pal Singh said they would take the corrective steps if anybody was found negligent in carrying his or her If the food found unfit for consumption, we will take the steps required.”

The machine meant to cook rotis also breaks down often after making 20,000 chapattis. The kitchen has to make 80,000 rotis, but workers end up cooking rice, instead of chapattis.

Teachers unwilling for kitchen duty
Though Government Senior Secondary School, Hambran, prepares the mid-day meal on its premises, teachers of the school are deputed on duty at the centralised kitchen at Sherpur, which is 25 km from Hambran. Teachers have to check the food by tasting it and, after dispatching the food from the kitchen, they have to wait in the kitchen only for the return receipts from the schools. After that they have to submit a report to the district education officer (elementary). They say their work at school suffers as, when on duty, they end up missing work.

Kitchen situated near littering site
The centralised kitchen neighbours a site used for dumping garbage, which best reflects the conditions in which the food is cooked. The road to the kitchen, too, is in bad shape. There is no signboard to locate the centralised kitchen

The mid-day meal connect
To increase enrolment, retention and to hone the learning abilities of beneficiaries, especially children belonging to poor and downtrodden sections of society, the mid-day meal scheme was started following a landmark ruling by the supremem court in November 2001. The centralised kitchen concept was adopted on November 16, 2012.