Physician, heal thyself

One of the most celebrated lines in English literature consists of six words. A hungry child holds an empty bowl and pleads: “Please, Sir, I want some more!”

When Charles Dickens wrote those words, he made children’s hunger an emotional experience, unparalleled for its pain and anguish. That poignant scene of Oliver Twist begging for more food comes to mind whenever I watch children line up in a mid-day meal programme, holding out their plates for that precious helping of hot, freshly cooked food. At least, schoolchildren in 21st century India are more fortunate than their 19th century British counterparts.

Yet, this programme is as important today, if not more, in a country where child malnutrition, with its terrible consequences, rivals sub-Saharan conditions. A shameful truth that we have to admit — despite our progress in other areas — is the fact that one-third of the world’s undernourished children live in India, which stands at a disgraceful 100th out of 118 countries “with a serious hunger situation,” according to the latest Global Hunger Index report.

The Mid-Day Meal programme that was started in 1995 in all government and aided schools in the country left many gaps in its implementation due to bureaucratic negligence. Similar state-sponsored schemes also failed for the same reason. Such programmes need the combined efforts of the food suppliers, teachers and parents of school-going children. They must work in tandem to implement them successfully.

The supplier must ensure the quality of the food, the teachers have to supervise its proper distribution, and the parents must bring their wards to school to eat the food. The programme has failed in many states because of the poor quality of food supplied, or the indifference of teachers to supervise its distribution, added to the reluctance of parents to educate their wards since they prefer to send them to work, instead. The ultimate victim is the child whose health and well-being are at stake.  

Consequently, the only school feeding programmes that have succeeded in this country are the efforts of non-government organisations (NGOs) where state control is minimal. Of these, the Akshaya Patra project, which conducts the world’s largest mid-day meal programme, seems to be India’s only hope of combating child malnutrition and its grave consequences. Covering more than 50,000 schools across 13 states in the country, the precision with which it serves piping hot food prepared in 40 kitchens to 1.76 million children simultaneously at lunch time on every working day is a feat that no government has been able to replicate. It is surprising that some state governments have tried to interfere with the working of such a viable programme when they themselves are unable to provide similar facilities for school children.

Unnecessary interference

The latest State meddling has occurred in Karnataka, where 3,000 schools are covered by the Akshaya Patra programme, which launched these mid-day meals for schoolchildren in 2001 following a Supreme Court Order that directed all state governments to provide “freshly prepared meals” in all government and aided primary schools. Since earlier efforts by the state government had failed miserably in this respect, the Akshaya Patra Foundation stepped in to conduct the scheme successfully since then.

One fails to understand the state government’s unnecessary interference in a well-ordered programme. This may have serious repercussions if the NGO withdraws its support completely, as it did in another state where the government obstructed its functioning. It will not only hurt millions of children, but it may also increase the school dropout rate. The mid-day meal has always been a great incentive to retain children in the classroom.

Besides, the government’s insistence on including garlic, onion and eggs in the mid-day meal in order to enhance its nutritional value is a specious argument as the present diet has been carefully planned to preserve its nutritional content by using alternative nutrients. 

Moreover, when the main player is a temple which follows its own norms and restrictions in cooking and supplying the food, the government should not dictate unacceptable terms as long as the food is nutritious and hygienic. It should also realise that it cannot by itself undertake or maintain the efficiency and wide reach of the existing programme.

It is nobody’s secret how the government ruined the UNICEF-initiated Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) with its constant interference and politicisation. That unique programme was totally wrecked by damaging the morale of the anganwadi workers, siphoning off and adulteration of the food supplies, and replacing them with sub-standard material.

Complaints are galore even today about state-sponsored meals for children being laced with stones, worms and lizards. The Karnataka government would do well to look into its own backyard before meddling with programmes which are running efficiently and smoothly.

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Physician, heal thyself

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