Bengal over-reported 160 million midday meals worth ₹100 crore: Report
Union education ministry in January formed a joint review mission (JRM) to visit West Bengal and review the implementation of the midday meal scheme.
The West Bengal government over reported 160 million midday meals worth ₹100 crore between April and September 2022, a review committee of the central government said, finding significant discrepancies in the number of beneficiaries , officials familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The Union education ministry in January formed a joint review mission (JRM) to visit West Bengal and review the implementation of the midday meal scheme, now known as PM POSHAN. The panel was formed days after Bharatiya Janata Party’s Suvendu Adhikari, leader of the opposition in the state assembly, wrote to Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan, alleging that funds for the midday scheme were being misused by the ruling Trinamool Congress dispensation. The Union government provides 60% of the funds for the scheme and states, the remaining 40%.
The review mission in its report submitted on March 24found serious discrepancies in the number of students who avail the free lunch in government schools, central government officials said, declining to be named.
“The report highlighted that the state had earlier claimed that 95% of the enrolled students were availing meals on average. However, during the visit of the committee, it was found that the number was much less than that,” one of the officials cited above said. “It stated that for 10 days prior to the visit of JRM, only 52% of the enrolled children were availing the meals.”
The panel highlighted “over reporting of serving of over 160 million meals,” a second official said, adding that the committee termed it as a “very serious issue”. “The report highlighted that the material cost of 160 million meals translates to over ₹100 crore,” he said.
Some 70% of the schools the panel visited provided less cooked rice than is prescribed in the norms. “It (the report) also said that the JRM found less dal (lentils) was cooked than prescribed quantities in 60% of the visited schools,” the second official said. “It also flagged that many schools had expired condiments , and fortified oil and fortified salt was not used in any of the visited schools.”
This is the latest instance when the central government led by the BJP has accused the ruling TMC in West Bengal of irregularities in centrally sponsored welfare programmes. It has previously raised issues over alleged misuse of funds under the rural jobs guarantee programme and PM Awas Yojna, which provides housing funds for the poor.
Manish Jain, West Bengal’s principal secretary for education, was not available for comment.
An official of the state’s education department said on condition of anonymity that in February, the Union education ministry decided to seek a special audit of the implementation of PM POSHAN scheme in West Bengal over the past three years by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, although members of the JRM expressed satisfaction after a field survey.
“The JRM team arrived in Bengal on January 29 and paid random visits to schools in the districts over a week. The team members expressed satisfaction,” the state government official said. “They did not raise any issue during the JRM meeting in Kolkata at the end of their tour.”
The issue has triggered a political slugfest in Bengal. The ruling TMC has targeted the Centre and the BJP, alleging that Adhikari knew about the Centre’s plans on a special audit even before the JRM team visited West Bengal.
While visiting Bengal on January 14, Pradhan had said: “We read some media reports on irregularities in PM POSHAN scheme. The Leader of the Opposition also submitted a note on large-scale irregularities. In 2020, the state objected to a JRM inspection. This time around, we are determined to send a team.”
Reacting to the development, TMC Rajya Sabha member Sukhendu Sekhar Roy said: “The BJP wants to create pressure on the TMC government before the imminent panchayat polls. This is a political conspiracy.”
BJP national spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla, however, said that there has been an institutionalization of corruption by TMC in West Bengal. “Our party has time and again raised that money allocated by the Centre for various schemes meant for the poorest for the poor has been siphoned off and diverted by the West Bengal government. Be it the scheme meant for feeding children in schools, scheme for building houses for the poor and MGNREGA,” he said.