Hundreds of students across Jharkhand are being deprived of their afternoon meals in school due to rampant stealing of the prepared food by staff supervising the much-maligned mid-day meal scheme, an HT investigation has revealed.
On paper an estimated 32 lakh students between class 1 and 8 are served the mid-day meal daily in Jharkhand where a Unicef study in 2013-14 had found 47% children under five years to be stunted and 42% underweight.
Students, teachers and other school staff HT spoke to in several districts said that in most educational institutions, the food is served within a fifteen-minute period which is not enough to serve all the students.
“By the time I reached the school kitchen, they had packed the food and shut the door,” said an eight-year-old student of Hatma Madhya Vidyalaya, who was so hungry that she had to beg for a packet of biscuit on Tuesday from a roadside vendor outside the institute, barely a 100 metres from the chief minister’s residence in Ranchi.
The mid-day meal is run by a school management committee (SMC) comprising teaching and non-teaching staff besides parents of a few students. The cooks, who are paid Rs 1,500 each, are generally local residents.
“A major chunk of the meal is often taken away by the MDM staff and a few villagers after the kitchen doors are shut,” said Prakash Pandey, a para-teacher working at the Banaso middle school in Hazaribagh, around 100 km from the state capital.
According to school sources, the SMCs in almost all rural schools prepare surplus food and wrap up the MDM sessions early so that a major chunk of the meal is leftover for them.
According to rules, food is supposed to be prepared for only those children present on a given day.
“If 100 children are enrolled in a school and only 60 or 70 are present on a given day, the SMCs get surplus food enough to feed at least 15 adults,” a teacher working in Giridih said on the condition of anonymity.
However, Mahant Pandey, headmaster of the school in Banaso denied that students were being deprived intentionally.
“A majority of students in class 6 to 8 do not take the meals. It is their share of meal which is usually taken away by the MDM staff,” he said.
The state’s school education and literacy secretary Aradhna Patnaik expressed ignorance about the racket but added that “if children are being denied lunch, we will have to take actions against the SMCs.”
The midday meal scheme in Jharkhand had come under the scanner earlier too after instances of children falling ill due to poor hygiene conditions came to light. Besides, activists allege that the meal served doesn’t meet the nutritional standards set by the Right to Education Act, 2009.