By Ankit Dwivedi:
The ambitious central government scheme of midday meal seems to have fallen flat on the barren lands of Bundelkhand. Much hyped and promoted scheme of midday meal boasts of providing a healthy meal to every child enrolled in government schools during school hours for no charge.
While the scheme looks exceptionally well on papers with lucrative objectives of increasing literacy and providing children with healthy diet once in a day, it has failed to make a mark when implemented on grassroots.
The scheme utilizes states’ educational manpower and a multi-level system for checks and balances. Headmasters of primary schools, junior high schools and secondary schools form the base which is under supervision of units of ‘Gram panchayat’ and further ‘Nyaya panchayat’ at village and block levels respectively. The head of gram panchayat shares a joint bank account with the headmaster of respective school in village, in which money is transferred on regular basis for infrastructure, maintenance, salary and other allowances. However the accountability rests with the headmaster, who is also responsible for ensuring proper delivery of monthly and annual reports.
I have visited many schools in rural areas of Lalitpur District of Bundelkhand, and observed and heard a number of discrepancies in implementation of midday meal scheme. Corruption and negligence dominates the shortcomings while there are a number of other problems as well. To mention a few:
a) The problems started emerging right from the beginning of scheme when a fund of Rs 60,000 was allotted to every school for building a kitchen in school premises. The head of gram panchayat and headmaster shared the responsibility for the same; however the shared responsibility turned into sharing of the funds. Mostly schools possess a kitchen built with poor quality ingredients which could not even bear a storm or a minor earthquake.
b) A fixed quantity of food grains (based on count of students and their age) should have been supplied to the schools. However, many headmasters complained of inadequate grains supplied by the government. The government often runs out of stock, and in such cases either shortens the amount of supplied grain or suggests headmaster to stop the service for a period.
c) The quality of food provided to children varies school to school, but is generally of very poor standard. Far from being a balanced diet, midday meal comprises of poor quality eatables, often inadequate and tasteless. Though there is a fixed menu, which is found to be followed mostly, the quantity of ingredients that should have been used was highly imbalanced. Porridge which is supposed to be provided on Saturdays should have 15 litres of milk for 100 children and a fixed quantity of dry fruits. However schools were seen using hardly 2-3 litres of milk with minimum sugar, while dry fruits were found out of context.
d) Rs 4.33 per student per diet are provided to headmasters for fuel, vegetables and other ingredients. There were only three or four schools out of 13, who used the money for these purposes at all. The tasteless food was a result of inadequate or sometimes no use of vegetables, spices and other taste making eatables.
e) A few teachers were found feeding wrong and inflated figures about students availing the facility, however there is no regular mechanism to avoid any such malpractice, except the sudden visits of ‘inspection teams’.
f) ‘Inspection team’ is no more than a group of authorised money grabbers, who demand a regular money (Rs. 300-500 per teacher) from teachers and a fixed amount if they notice any discrepancy in schools on every visit once or twice in a year.
g) In few villages even problems of caste differences occurred, while children of upper castes denied eating with children of lower castes or the food cooked by women of lower castes. Over questions of reason for this denial, nearly all spilled out the venom embedded in their minds and hearts by their parents about how their caste will be destroyed by any such activity.
h) Headmasters reported that though the enrollments in schools have increased, but children of very poor families have started to come only for the sake of free food and scholarships. In two schools where maintenance of discipline was a problem, students even jumped out of school and went back home after the midday meal.
i) The monopoly of utilizing funds by the head of gram panchayat in association with headmaster, in cases has made them autocratic and corrupt.
However there is a brighter side of picture as well. All datas of funds and students are computerized and are updated monthly. Another authentic use of technology is automatic call to the headmasters. From the regional center automated calls come every working day and require a digital feed of number of students, thus maintaining a record of students getting midday meal.
Also this scheme has given employment to two, three women from each village as maids for cooking. The scheme is gaining maturity and people are getting aware of it every passing day.
A successful attempt was witnessed in a village where a group of parents (‘Abhibhavak samiti’) took the responsibility of implementation rather than the Head of Gram panchayat.
This scheme could bring accolades for the government if implemented and managed in appropriate spirit. However intellectuals and civil society needs to step in to aid the government in ensuring a healthy diet to rural children.
The writer is a rural reporter from Bundelkhand.