The much discussed mid-day meal in Government schools owes it origin in the 1960’s when it was introduced in Tamil Nadu with a mandate to protect children from hunger, increase school attendance and enrollment and mitigate malnutrition. It would later be adopted across the country following a direction from the Supreme Court in 2001. The scheme, as with many other well- meaning welfare schemes designed by the Central Government has run into rough weather on various counts. When it was found that State Governments unwilling to allocate budgetary resources were passing off grains that came for the scheme to parents, the 2001 Supreme Court direction specified that cooked meals be served to school children studying in all government and government assisted primary schools. Not many are aware that in the wake of a right to food litigation by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Rajasthan), the Mid day meal scheme became a legal entitlement, the violation of which can be taken up in a court of law. Without doubt, the introduction of free meals in schools across the country have led to more attendance of school children and drop outs getting back to classes. Aided by provisions under the Right to Education Act under which Government school going children get free books, school uniforms etc, the mid day meal scheme has worked its charm on children from lesser well off families. But even as this aspect is true, the other side of the story is also that the scheme has brought in a lot of room for siphoning of funds and malpractices with many cases being reported and placed before the public domain. On the other hand, there are states that have put in other mechanisms to aid the objectives set for the free mid day meal schemes. For instance, the state of Gujarat includes regular provision of iron tablets to counter anaemia and provides de-worming tablets once in six months. De-worming tablets are also provided in Tamil Nadu while Bihar has incorporated a management information system using web based technology that reflects monthly consumption of grains and funds on regular, thereby keeping a check on malpractices.
Much before the currently discussed mid day meal poisoning incident at a primary school in Bihar’s Dharmasati village in Gandaman, there have been many other cases earlier where children became seriously ill after eating the meals cooked at schools under the scheme. A spate of such incidents across the country in fact led to a phase where there was much debate whether handing out food grains, meant to be cooked for meals was facilitating corruption and malpractices. The Government was on the verge of calling for high nutrition level biscuits and dry supplements, but the idea was shot down by child specialists, nutritionists, educationists and Government officials. In Manipur, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asked the state Government in May this year to submit reports regarding the progress achieved in implementing the midday meal and also institute a high-level probe into the implementation of mid-day meal scheme in schools. The directive from the NHRC came after an NGO working in the child rights sector drew the attention of the Commission. The NGO incidentally quoting a survey by a body of various NGOs also pointed out the quantity of rice being distributed to schools was less than the actual allocation.
Not many want to go on record with the exact amount of foodgrains that end up going missing in between the area from where the grains are distributed, on to the school authority and then, to the actual plates of school children. But the whisper on the ground is that over 30% of the total allocated foodgrains are being taken by various non-state armed forces. With majority schools of the state not having proper storage facilities for foodgrains, school authorities tend to take them in to their own homes and conveniently forget about them while the lack of adequate information about the stipulations and provisions under the scheme fosters ground for its misuse and ineffective functioning. While school authorities are only too willing to invite the state media on the days that mid day meals are being provided, the reality is that the meals are not being handed out on a daily basis as is mandated by the scheme and the Act under which it is being rolled out. The Dharmasati incident is most unfortunate and the fact that it has taken place in a state where mechanisms in place to ensure the scheme being implemented shows that it is equally important to see that attention is paid to how food is cooked and where.