Quality is key

Less than a fortnight after reports surfaced of a dead snake being found in the food served as part of the mid-day meal scheme in West Bengal’s Bhirbhum district has come another report of a lizard found in the food of students in Indore. These are not of course the first time that reptiles and rodents have been found. There have been innumerable instances of children falling grievously ill after food they ate was found to contain lizards, cockroaches, rats, rat droppings and even a snake. These instances seem to be growing.

Officials responsible for the implementation of the scheme have often blamed the carelessness of the cooks, while the latter claim that they are made to prepare the food in unhygienic conditions. Beyond engaging in a blame-game, authorities have done little to ensure that the food children get is clean and safe. India’s mid-day meal scheme is the largest in the world, providing food to 140 million children. It is said to have tackled hunger in some states and increased school enrolment.  It has the potential to break caste prejudices too by forcing children of all castes to sit together to eat. It is unfortunate that a programme that has the potential to protect children from extreme hunger is being undermined by extreme carelessness in its implementation. Our children deserve better.

Karnataka can take pride in its implementation of the scheme. The government has roped in ISKCON and several NGOs to fund and implement the scheme. The number of beneficiaries has grown. But simultaneously an effort has been made to ensure quality. Cooks are being trained in hygiene and cleanliness and food is delivered in sealed boxes. It is not that implementation is without flaws here but organisations involved in the scheme have walked the extra mile to provide children with tasty, nutritious and clean food.

In 2001, the Supreme Court directed state governments to provide one cooked meal a day to students in all government and government-assisted primary schools. State governments have followed that directive but half-heartedly. They have provided meals to appease the court. But have quietly ignored the quality of food. It is time the apex court hauled them up and served them with a reminder that children are entitled to a cooked meal that is clean, safe and wholesome.

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