Food for whom?
Though India’s mid-day meal scheme extends ambitious goals, its implementation, over the years, has been fraught with challenges in maintaining quality, hygiene and health
December 13, 2018, was just another day, yet hardly an ordinary day for the students of a government school at Ballari, Karnataka. Nearly 100 students had gathered at 12 noon to avail their mid-day meal when suddenly a child screamed in anguish as he found a dead lizard lying in his meal. He began regurgitating in no time, followed quickly by nearly 80 children from his batch falling ill after consuming the same mid-day meal. Sadly, this wasn't an isolated incident; repeated instances of mid-day meals going wrong have been reported from the time the programme has been implemented. Colourless green ideas sleep furiously – acclaimed social critic Noam Chomsky had said, aptly describing the many ideas that are conceived with greatness but are then reduced to shambles with ill-thought execution – the mid-day meal scheme pays a fitting complement to this adage.
The scheme first came into play in 1995 and has since undergone many changes. In 2001, it received final modifications and was later brought under the National Food Security Act, 2013. The goal was to provide nutrition to school children, as hunger was found to be a prime detriment causing dropouts and non-enrollment. The authorities believed that with the scheme, as children would get food regularly, they would come to school and attend classes. In reality, that is exactly what happened in the initial days. However, as time passed and demands for the mid-day meal grew, the scheme was scathed with controversy and continues to falter in paradigms of hygiene and quality.
The scheme works in broadly two ways – a decentralised model and a centralised model. In the first instance, authorities delegate the responsibility to individuals with contracts to prepare mid-day meals. In the second instance, the responsibility is given to specific NGOs who provide mid-day meals to all schools of the state.
"Be in no doubt that this is a big and complex affair. It is estimated that some 117 million children studying up to Standard 8 are fed cooked meals every day in some 1.26 million schools and other such centres. The scheme, according to government figures, provides employment to some 2.6 million cooks and helpers. The operations are complicated. Money comes from the Centre in four instalments to states; it then reaches districts and individual schools based on enrollment, off-take and spending," elaborates environmentalist Sunita Narain in an article.
There is no authority to inspect the quality of food being served and callousness is pervasive as can be seen in several instances. In Bihar, 23 children lost their lives after eating their mid-day meal on July 16, 2013. Forensic reports declared the incident as a case of poisoning because the oil used for cooking was kept in a container that was previously used to store farm pesticide. There are many such unreported cases where students who have eaten the meal have reported afflictions of dysentery and ill-health. Now, over time, parents and children, fearing safety, have declined to have the food served in these mid-day meals. The MDMS guidelines dictate that the meal should be of good quality, besides being nutritious, tasty and digestible, and changing from day-to-day to ensure variety in the menu.
Meanwhile, according to reports, the centralised system has better outcomes as NGOs keep in mind the hygiene points and also quality of food. "Our kitchen staff undergoes thorough training by professionals in best practices for safe and hygienic food handling measures. These include wearing clean clothes, hairnet or a cap, gloves and proper shoes at all times, washing their hands with running water and soap, use of hand sanitisers, etc, which are monitored by our quality supervisors on a daily basis. Those who are suffering from medical issues are not allowed in the food preparation area. Each employee has to undergo a medical check-up at the time of joining and subsequently every year," said Ajay Kavishwar, Director for Planning, PR & Advocacy, The Akshaya Patra Foundation.
INACCURATE STATE-LEVEL DATA
Most states in India lack comprehensive data on implementation of the scheme as the flow of money involves the Centre. Many states deliberately distance themselves from keeping any meaningful record.
The Supreme Court in December, last year, imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh each on Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Odisha and Jammu & Kashmir for not maintaining appropriate records of the mid-day meal scheme in their states. A bench of Justice Madan B Lokur, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Hemant Gupta had also imposed a fine of Rs 2 lakh on the Delhi government for not furnishing information.
The order followed a PIL by Antarrashtriya Manav Adhikaar Nirgrani Parishad, drawing the court's attention to malpractices in the scheme's implementation. Noting that the mid-day meal scheme was of considerable benefit to children, the court, in its order, said: "We have been trying to get the states to render assistance and upload all data so that necessary corrective steps can be taken from time to time. In spite of several of our orders, there has been little or no cooperation from some of the states."
Stating that the scheme was not being taken "seriously by several states", the court said: "Data has not been supplied and there are allegations made by the petitioner about food grains disappearing and not reaching the schools." Imposing the fine, the court said that Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Odisha had said that they will comply with the requirements of the mid-day meal scheme and provide necessary links detailing processes of implementation to the satisfaction of the petitioner.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Every scheme or policy comes with its own shortcomings; but, in the end, the most important factor is the goodwill of the government. Food is intimately connected to health and preparation of food for children deserves more attention.
Explaining the process of maintaining hygiene, Ajay Kavishwar of Akshay Patra, said, "Elaborate measures have been taken to maintain cleanliness on the premises. Not just the food preparation area, but even the bathrooms, toilets, tiles, ceilings, window panes, glass racks, etc., are cleaned on a daily basis. Switchboards, light bulbs, ventilators, exhaust fans, etc., are thoroughly cleaned and pest control activities in the stores (main and day stores) are conducted at regular intervals."
With time, states have started realising that a centralised system can be the only alternative for the scheme. Recently, Delhi government also decided to initiate a centralised mid-day meal system. "We are working on the project and are coming up with solutions soon. We are reconsidering Akshaya Patra and reworking the entire mid-day contracts for the whole of Delhi," Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said.
Food is a basic necessity for sustenance and, when it's about protecting children's well-being, governments ought to be more cautious. The alternative of packaged food or any other method of replacing regular food would only be detrimental for the health of children. Kitchen cooked fresh food is the most nutritious, assisting the growth of both the brain and body. A little effort, a little care, a little goodwill and a little focus can change the whole system and provide good food and secure the health of our future generations. However, to date, unsurprisingly, the political system has displayed little will to rectify the shortcomings of the scheme in India.