Karela Fry

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Mid-day meals: a microcosm of organizational callousness

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DNA took a look at the biggest news since yesterday:

In a tragic incident, 22 children died and at least 27 are admitted to the hospital after eating food from a mid-day meal in a state-run primary school in Bihar’s Saran district on Tuesday. The mid-day meal scheme was introduced by the government to encourage education among the poor by providing free food.

HT reported:

Autopsy reports on 22 children who died this week after eating a school lunch in Bihar confirmed that they were poisoned by insecticide, which was either in the food or cooking oil, a doctor said Thursday.

Something seems to have gone horribly wrong in this case. But the average case is not likely to be very good either. In a single day following this tragedy we also read reports of worms in food served in Amritsar, cooks else where in Bihar fainting after eating their own meals, and over 100 children in Tamil Nadu falling ill after a meal. I suspect that the media massively under-reports such problems (after all the middle class is not dependent on this scheme).

I base this guess on the following report in BS:

The HRD ministry has announced, tad later [sic] in the day one might say, the setting up of a monitoring committee to look into the quality of food supplied. As the official explains, the reason behind the better implementation of the scheme in southern states for instance, is large scale community participation.

“Parents and village elders through School Management Committees should be periodically testing and monitoring the quality of food being served, cooked, checking on hygienic conditions, etc.” In most states, the periodic reviews that are mandatory seldom take place. That apart the government and the Central monitoring mechanisms have also been lax. Repeated incidents of children falling ill due to dead rats, lizards in the ,meals etc. have been reported with alarming frequency across the country with no reaction from the authorities.

At present both the Centre and the state chip in with funds in the ratio of 75:25 [sic]. While Rs 3.49 is given per child in Primary classes per meal per day, it is Rs five for Upper Primary children. These figures although, seem wholly inadequate, are a vast improvement from the Rs 1.68 that was paid as late as 2009 for feeding children in Primary classes.

If Rs. 3 to 5 is spent per child per day, is it likely that the average quality of food is good? Even if the money were well-spent, the quality of food would be far worse than the Indian middle class is used to. So, while poisonous food is a one-shot affair, it is likely that worm-infested food is served much more often than we care to examine. Can we force the system to be a little more caring?

This is what the Chandigarh Tribune has to say:

The programme guidelines clearly mandate quarterly meetings of state-level steering-cum-monitoring committees that are supposed to evaluate the qualitative and safety aspects of mid-day meals being served in the respective districts.

In Bihar, only three such meetings have taken place since 2009. No meeting was held in 2009-2010 and 2010-11; one was held in 2011-12 and two have been held this year.

The situation is the same across the country. The Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry note on MDM review says: “Only 55 meetings of the state screening committees took place in 2012-13 as against 140 that were mandated.”

This is the usual case of a massive failure of the Indian polity. Political parties blame each other and put on a reality show on TV when things get out of hand. But they all have the same vested interest in not making things work. Government employees are coerced into falling in with “irregularities” and corrupt individuals get patronage from political parties. Other petty corruptions thrive under this massively corrupt system.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 18, 2013 at 3:32 pm

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