Mid-day (Midday) Meals in India – a Challenging Task !

With all the recent tragedies and controversies associated with the Mid-day (Midday) Meal Scheme in Bihar, Odisha, UP, MP, Chattishgarh and other states, many like me must be wondering whether there is a need to re-look at the effectiveness of the scheme and/or whether this program should be stopped altogether. Some say that these are just isolated incidents that happen at times (random theory) and some like Chief Minister (Bihar) Nitish Kumar say that there is a conspiracy behind these incidents !

The ‘mid-day meal in schools’ programme in India that started in 1960 had the main objectives of protecting children against hunger and increasing school-enrolment and/or attendance. Other than these main objectives, mid-day meal programme had also aimed to achieve equality or social harmony among children of various classes and castes, and to provide employment to the unprivileged women. Though the key objectives are still valid in the changed scenario of today’s world, the promotion of social harmony or equality is still a myth !

It is true that there are many points to be discussed, many issues to be solved and many things to be proved or disproved by the Government, by the Officials, by the Media and by the so-called social Intellectuals and human-rights Activists…

Instead of going to the mode of another commentary, let me narrate my own experiences on the mid-day meal scheme.

I studied in a village school in the early eighties. Those days, government schools were the only mode of schooling in many parts of India (a few private English-medium schools, mostly managed by Christian Missionaries were there in the cities). We had three Teachers only to teach five classes/standards, each class/standard having 50-60 students. Teaching curriculum was definitely exhaustive those days. Other than teaching, duties such as preparing voter-lists, census, checking village sanitation, etc., were day-to-day activities of our Teachers.

Like many other schools, we too had mid-day meal programme, though not regularly. There was only one item – wheat kheer (porridge). We used to bring our own utensils from home and assist our Teachers in cooking the meals, cleaning the utensils and bringing the stocks from the local Block or Panchayat office; never received the full-quota – as these offices reserved their shares !

No external help or cook was appointed for this programme.

Every student was asked to bring some firewood from his/her home for the cooking (now I realize, that in fact, it was a punishable offence). I remember, some of my class-mates used to steal firewood from their neighbour’s backyards to avoid harassment in the school.

Since there was no tube-well in the school premises, we used to walk at least 2 km (to and fro) to bring drinking and cooking water; a very tough job during the hot summer and the rainy season.

I still remember… There were some broken-wheat supplied by the government for the programme; at least half of the stock used to go to the Teachers’ homes directly for their own use – like making sweets or feeding their cows ! Oil and Salt were also supplied; more than half of the oil was used at the feasts and for preparing snacks during the School Sub-Inspector’s visit or Village Committee’s visit to the school.

And the quality of the wheat was sometimes horrible; worms were almost certain and it was an every day affair. To handle the mid-day meals in schools, Village Workers and CDPOs (Child Development Project Officers) were appointed by the government. It is true that these officials used to visit school for inspections followed by a grand feast and a holiday for all of us. But these officials also had their shares in the mid-day meal programme !! We or our parents did not know whom to complain ?!? It was therefore hardly discussed even in casual get-together of our parents or guardians.

Speaking about social harmony and equality – there were high differentiations among the students based on castes (at least religion was not involved in our school) even while preparing food, bringing water and eating those meals. This ill trend reportedly continues in some schools even today !!!!

The mid-day meal program has continued for years… worsening day- by-day. For some, it is a business; for some, it is a mode of earning; and for some, it is just a single meal in the whole day !!

Taxpayers’ money is being regularly spent on such a programme, whose effectiveness is much debatable and it is still not made clear who is accountable for these tragedies; no proper monitoring system is yet in place ! There is definitely a huge lack of administration and accountability in this. Officials or Social-Workers, even when enabled with sufficient power, seem to fall short in carrying out or meting their responsibilities, and taking initiatives to prevent mid-day meal tragedies. There is an indifferent attitude in most of the cases – no one is really bothered. And the blame-game goes on as usual…

But is the government only to be blamed ? We too are responsible in many roles as – parents, teachers, village committee members, Sarpanchs, ward-members, officials, social observers, social activists, etc. We have been sleeping on the mega loopholes for years, even though we knew it was meant for our innocent little buds !!

Aamjunta – what do you think? It is time for you to act too…

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