Meal scheme cries out for hygiene, quality

With 23 innocent children in Bihar losing their lives due to poison in their mid-day meals, the quality of free meals served to our children and the larger issue of malnutrition have come in to sharp focus out of the tragedy. It is a shame that the average rate of malnutrition in India is higher than that of Sub-Saharan countries – one-third of the 150 million malnourished children in the world live in India.

Also, gender bias renders girls more malnourished than boys. Early marriage and underweight births are also contributors to the problem. Underweight mothers give birth to underweight children and child birth further erodes the mother’s health considerably with nothing to replenish lost nutrients. The issue of malnutrition has far-reaching effect on the overall health of our population and it is like a cycle that passes on from mother to child and so on.

Lack of nutrition among children leads to reduced mental, physical and emotional growth among children, which in turn affects their performance in school. In India, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan account for 43 per cent of all underweight children and shockingly, approximately 60 million children are underweight in India, according to World Bank reports.

Break caste barriers

The midday meal scheme was born in 1960s out of a young boy’s annocuous answer to the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu K Kamaraj’s question of why he was herding cattle instead of going to school. The boy said, “If I go to school, will you give me food to eat? I can learn only if I eat.” This led to the introduction of the mid-day meal scheme for the first time in Tamil Nadu. Although the scheme has been a part of India since the 1960s, in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that all state governments have to implement the midday meal scheme in an attempt to address the problem of lack of nutrition among children and as an incentive for children to attend school. It was also expected to break caste barriers as all the children would sit down together for a meal. The scheme promises one free lunch to every student on working days and has been quite successfully implemented in many states.

Yet, the scheme has also been in the news for a number of wrong reasons. The recent death of children in Chapra, Bihar is unjustified and unpardonable. Taking into account the symptoms suffered by children after consuming the meal, like abdominal pain, fever, vomiting and frothing in the mouth, it is speculated that the food contained organic phosphorus, a pesticide. But how did it get mixed with the food? The ruling JD (U) government has claimed that the incident was the result of an alleged conspiracy to bring down the government. Proper investigation must be done to find out the truth and severe punishment meted out to those involved.

Although the midday meal scheme has been implemented in 12 lakh schools across the country, to feed 11 crore hungry stomachs, the government has not been able to sort out the lack of infrastructure in most schools to store the grains and cook the meal every day.

This results in improper storage of food which further results in contamination and breeding of insects. There have been reported instances of grains being siphoned off by teachers and government officials. In December 2006, it was reported that government officials were faking enrolment of students in schools to receive more food grain and the excess grain was being pocketed by the officials themselves. Such unscrupulous activities just add to the problem of implementing such a massive scheme across the country.

Tie-ups with NGOs have also more often than not ended up in failure with a few exceptions. The Akshaya Patra, an NGO which first started its services in Karnataka has had more success as an implementing arm of the government scheme. Man-power and infrastructure are two areas of implementation that need to be strengthened to improve the quality of food and service.

The Bihar tragedy is the first instance of children dying from midday meal and our government should ensure that steps are taken and immediately implemented to prevent such a tragedy from recurring. Hygiene and quality of food served in schools must be tracked regularly. Forming more committees is not the solution. Implementation is important than mere promises and condolences. President Pranab Mukherjee had said in his first speech as the head of the country, “There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger.” Children are the future of any nation and their safety and well-being should be prioritised above anything else.

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