There are no guidelines for hygienic preparation and handling of mid-day meals for children; monitoring at local level virtually non-existent
Manju Devi is curled up in a corner in the children's ward of Patna Medical and College Hospital where children of the Chapra primary school who were served poisonous mid-day meal are admitted. She repeatedly calls herself murderer of the 22 children; three of her own children were also poisoned in the tragic incident.
She shivers at the sight of bodies of children who once played with her kids.
Manju is employed as a cook at the Dharmasati primary school. She prepared the mid-day meal for nearly 160 children. The poisonous meal killed 22 of them; 85 others are battling for life.
As Manju talks of her guilt, it becomes apparent she was given no formal training on hygiene and handling of mid-day meals.
The free lunch scheme is utterly mismanaged in the absence of clear guidelines. This became evident once again on Wednesday when 50 students were admitted in the Madhubani district hospital when they took ill after having their mid-day meal. The school cook is absconding.
Food unfit for consumption: study
Bihar serves mid-day meal to 13.5 million children in 73,000 government-run primary and middle schools. Nearly 30,000 schools have no kitchen or shed for cooking the meal.
Almost 8,000 schools in the state have no buildings at all. It means that the classes run in open or in a room of a community building. In these schools, mid-day meals are prepared under the open sky.
The unhygienic and “dangerous” practices for preparing mid-day meal was highlighted in a report prepared by Jamia Milia Islamia and Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences. According to the report, mid-day meals prepared in 75 per cent of the schools in Kishanganj and Purnia districts are not fit for human consumption.
There are two ways for monitoring the quality of mid-day meal. Under the specification to make mid-day meal a community run programme, the meal is prepared under the supervision of a guardian body, comprising mothers of students and panchayat members. Or it is monitored and prepared by a non-profit.
In Bihar, it’s the parent’s body that supposedly looks after the preparation of mid-day meals in 94.7 per cent of the schools. But the report by Jamia Milia Islamia makes a shocking revelation—in 75 per cent of the schools, parents' body never interfered on the issue of quality of mid-day meal, despite the fact that the meals prepared were unhygienic.
In a bid to ensure quality in mid-day meal, a few years back the state employed cooks on an honorarium of Rs 1,000 each. But poor infrastructure in schools proved to be a major hurdle in providing quality meals.
At the Dharmasati primary school, bags of rice and potatoes were stocked and piled on bags of fertilizers and insecticides. While the school’s principal, Meena Devi, is absconding, villagers claim there is no space in the school to store foodgrain. This is the reason why foodgrain was kept at the residence of the principal.
D M Diwakar, director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences, calls the entire mid-day meal a farce in the absence of infrastructure and hygiene.
Amarjeet Sinha, principal secretary of the Bihar education department admits to the infrastructure crisis. He claims that the infrastructure development work is being carried out on a large scale, but that things cannot be changed overnight.
Backward states like Bihar are still struggling with basics. While the state is trying to strengthen its base, implementation of slew of new policies has increased the volume of work, because of real priorities have taken a backseat.
RTE adds pressure
Sinha says the Right To Eaducation (RTE) directs states to ensure a school in every neighbourhood within a one kilometre radius. The Central government scheme, according to officials, is a bit premature for a state like Bihar that needed time to strengthen the existing education infrastructure.
“In majority of the places, there was no land for establishing school. We started the concept of land donation. We now have a land bank,” says Sinha.
In a bid to establish schools in the one radius periphery, the state government started opening schools in the panchayat bhawans, in a room of community hall and even allowed schools to function under trees.
The mid-day meal scheme has always remained low on the priority of the state government. It showed more interest in state-run schemes, including state chief minister bicycle scheme for students; free distribution of uniforms among school children added to the work load.
In the initial five years, the NDA government in Bihar distributed free cycles to girl students and in the later phase extended the scheme to all students. Free uniforms were distributed to three million students at a cost of over Rs 76 crore in 2010-11.
Diwakar makes a simple calculation: the 80,000 schools that have no kitchen could have been built with the money spent on free uniform scheme. “A kitchen shed won’t cost more than Rs 1 lakh and an amount of Rs 76 crore can provide a kitchen to 30,000 kitchen-less schools,” he says.
Diwakar further points out that 18 per cent of the schools do not even have toilets.
Civil society members have also started questioning the freebies given by the state government to school students. If the state is implementing RTE and building more schools, then students do not need a free cycle to reach their school, they contend.
Sinha disagrees. He says the free cycle scheme has attracted students to schools. “Change can be seen in increase in the number of students appearing for board examinations. Earlier, children would drop out after primary school but now they are completing secondary schooling,” he argues.
Inflation and mid-day meal
The growing food inflation in the country is not reflected in the money allocated for mid-day meal. In Bihar, a sum of Rs 3.50 has been allocated for one day's meal for a primary school student and Rs 5 for a middle school student.
The mandatory specification for preparing the meal includes Agmark-branded spices, iodised salt and vegetable/mustard oil. The five day week menu reads: Monday- rice, pulses and seasonal vegetables; Tuesday-black beans and fried rice, Wednesday-rice, potatoes and soybean, Thursday-khichri and potato mash and Friday-kadhi and rice.
A total amount of Rs 1,800 crore is spent on mid-day meal in Bihar. The Union government allocated Rs 1,400 crore and state government allocates Rs 400 crore annually for the scheme.
The mid-day meal scheme that was launched with a dual motive of attracting children to the school to boost literacy and to improve nutritional status of children has apparently hit the wall in the state. The spate of cases of food poisoning is scaring away parents.
Director for mid-day meal programme in Bihar, R Lakhsmanan, says the department will now conduct extensive training of cooks and monitoring committee, including the headmasters, on hygiene and safe handling of mid-day meal. He also says that all the schools would be given a first aid kit.
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