Governance · Society

The Mid-day Meal Scheme: Lessons Learnt and The Way Forward

Anyatama Nayak writes about the implementation and the current scenario pertaining to mid-day meal scheme in India.

The Mid-day meal scheme was started by the Government to provide the much needed nutrition that is needed for the students who go to school. This also provides an incentive to students who are willing to attend school. The Mid-day meal scheme provides for lunch at school and was started keeping in view to enhance enrollment, attendance in schools and also to keep up the nutrition levels among the children. This program supplies lunch meal at government schools, government aided schools, local bodies etc for the students of primary and upper primary class students.[1]

However, the execution of this programme has not been up to the mark. Challenges that have affected this well meaning scheme have been various and have also at times lead to devastating results. One of such events that had brought attention to the problems and mismanagement that might ensue behind the curtain is the Bihar School meal poisoning incident. On the 16th of July 2013 the news of the death of 23 students and a number of others who fell ill after eating a midday meal at a primary school in the Saran district of Bihar shocked the nation.[2] It was later found that the Midday meal had been contaminated by pesticide. Officials after investigation brought to light the fact that the oil used for cooking the meal had been placed in a container that was formerly used to store insecticides and were indeed very toxic. This lead to public outrage and various protests and demonstrations. A FIR was then filed against the headmistress for criminal negligence along with her husband.

Recently, the court gave the judgement on the case and sentenced the principal Meena Devi to 10 years and seven years of imprisonment[3]. The Chhapra court treated the case as rarest of rare case and has awarded the maximum punishment that can be given for the offence of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and for criminal negligence. However her husband Arjun Yadav was acquitted of all charges. His shop was the one from which the school brought the products for making the food and it included the oil that was used.

Looking at such instances and various others that have followed and preceded the Bihar tragedy, it is highly important that the Mid-day meal scheme needs to be implemented and provided keeping proper checks and balances. There are various things which have been pointed out in this regard. One of the most important things is for the proper training of those that cook in these kitchens especially in rural areas where sanitation while preparing food should be of utmost importance. There are a number of state governments that have been collaborating with NGO’s that have been helping in the distribution of the meals. And in such situations the meals are cooked at one centralized place and from there the meals are send out to the different schools. Here it is easier to keep a check on the quality of food being sent out and any problem with the food can be easily known of and fixed.[4] Whereas the problem of keeping such checks is difficult in the case of decentralized kitchens which are mostly what are present usually.

The Bihar government has however made it mandatory after the tragedy to have the headmasters of the schools to taste the food before it is served. This will help to eliminate some of the problem. However a better system should be put into place to make sure that the food served to kids meets a standard that is necessary. Such a system needs to be devised and implemented if better quality and healthy food is to be served. The food needs to be responsibly handled and this will be done when people are held accountable for the lapses that they are responsible for.

Another very important area that has greater scope for improvement would be better administration in this regard. The school’s need to be trained on how to manage the cooking and distribution of the meals. It is vital that the food served has to be checked by the school management. The sanitary preparation of food needs to be prepared well across all the sectors from the extraction of raw materials to the making of the food. The government should also be careful when the food grain and other materials are obtained and stored. Controlling the spread of diseases depends on the successful execution of sanitation and cleanliness.

It is very important to invest more into this scheme and also take into account the glitches that the program has shown in the past, And by identifying lapses in the system or in any layer of the government when involved in it we should try and develop a more robust scheme. Research have shown that the scheme has helped boost attendance at schools and has also helped in the social causes of removing caste based division and bias as the kids sit together to have the food served.[5] The benefits will always weigh more and thus this scheme remains one that is of utmost relevance and that still has scope for development and a long way forward.

References-

[1]Frequently asked questions about Mid-day Meal, Mid Day Meal (MDM) Official website, http://mdm.nic.in/Files/Right%20to%20information/Frequently_Asked_Questions_on_MDM.pdf

[2]Served death: Bihar mid-day meal tragedy kills 22 kids, Hindustan Times, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/served-death-bihar-mid-day-meal-tragedy-kills-22-kids/story-QZeCmxjrpxPgtUnH24LC5O.html

[3]Bihar midday meal tragedy: Everything you need to know about the incident, Indian Express, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/bihar-chhapra-midday-meal-tragedy-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-incident-3002203/

[4]Lessons learned from India’s midday meal scheme for schoolchildren, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/aug/11/india-midday-meal-scheme-schoolchildren

[5]Ibid.

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