By Saurabh Sharma and Sumit Sharma for Youth Ki Awaaz:
With its count of undernourished and malnourished children, the Government Senior Secondary School in Kanpur Dehat, a district in the Kanpur City of Uttar Pradesh was clearly not benefiting from the midday meal scheme. There were rising cases of malnutrition.
IAS officer Apurva Dubey, then newly posted in the district, immediately recognised the problem. She decided it was time to transform the scheme from a well-meaning one to a well-executed one.
The 27-year-old 2012-batch IAS officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre came up with a brilliant, yet simple solution: grow a kitchen garden. To be housed in the school compound itself, the vegetables grown would enrich the daily midday meals. There was a half-acre vacant lot just waiting to sprout green. The principal and the teachers were skeptical at first. None of the IAS officers who had preceded Apurva had suggested this. However, in a few months, her efforts yielded results. The school got its first kitchen garden, and the children got nutritious midday meals every day. The school, which according to its principal Sagira Aamna had nine malnourished students before the kitchen garden sprung up, does not have a single malnourished child on its rolls anymore.
Just when things were looking great, the state government struck. Apurva was transferred to Bareilly after her six month stint. And the school’s kitchen garden wilted.
Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of malnourished and severely malnourished children (about 58 lakh) in the country, according to the government’s own submission in Parliament in May 2016. According to the World Bank, child malnutrition in India is “extraordinarily high”, worse than in sub-Saharan countries.
On paper, midday meal scheme is a veritable savior. The ground reality is often exasperating, and definitely not achieving its purpose. There have been instances of frogs and lizards found in meals served in some schools, poisoning the food and leaving children sick.
A host of NGOs are in the field working to improve the situation, especially after the state government launched the State Nutrition Mission in November 2014.
Nearly Rs 3,000 crore was allocated to Uttar Pradesh under the Integrated Child Development Services scheme, but 70% of that money was spent on administrative expenses, only 30% going towards providing nourishment to malnourished kids.
Experts say that small and simple initiatives like that of Dubey go further in achieving desired results than spending crores of rupees on unsuitable and unsustainable programmes.
Dubey’s success story, even if it seems to have been nipped in the bud, demonstrates that all it takes to foster change is the will to initiate change.
By involving school children and school staff, the school kitchen garden not only addressed the root cause of malnourishment but also injected a sort of enthusiasm that was previously absent, said Vinod Yadav of Bharat Abhyudaya Foundation (BAF), a not-for-profit organisation involved in elementary education reform in Uttar Pradesh.
The significance of the initiative is not restricted to solving the problem of malnutrition. Just ask Rani Kushwaha. A class 3 student, she spoke of her gardening experience. “It was kind of fun seeing vegetables grow and plucking them. I also learnt the English names of the vegetables!” said Rani.
Samina Bano, a Right to Education activist and the chairperson of BAF, told YKA that she found the idea of kitchen garden in schools “simply great, and out of the box”. She said it would be wonderful if the idea was implemented across the country.
For Dubey, the success of the initiative was a reward in itself. She told YKA she thinks the fact that students of these schools got to know her name mattered the most for her. She added that she herself had studied in a government school in Arunachal Pradesh and had always taken a keen interest in the upliftment of government schools.
In terms of challenges, the caretaker of the school kitchen garden was employed under MNREGA, so there was no need to pitch a new project to seek finances, Dubey said. The weather was the only unpredictable factor, she said, but even fickle weather could not stop the school kitchen garden from producing a good 35 kilo of vegetables in the first cycle itself!
The tumult that marks the run-up to next year’s assembly elections in UP has left Dubey with no time to implement the idea in Bareilly, where she’s the sub-divisional magistrate, currently.
What is criminal, however, is that Kanpur Dehat appears to have shelved her programme. The Gram Pradhan, who was appointed caretaker of the school kitchen garden, has stopped overseeing it. The caretaker has not been paid his salary ever since Dubey left.
Arif, the man hired for the job, told YKA that he stopped working three months ago.
Ram Sanehi, the parent of a class III student of the school, Nihal, told YKA that children were a happy lot and showed interest in going to school when Dubey was around, and they were getting midday meals that were nutritious. That’s not the case anymore, he said.
While Dubey’s story demonstrates that many young IAS officers like her are working hard to bring about change in Uttar Pradesh, the State’s inability to sustain projects like hers could ensure that things go back to their old, broken ways.
“We are requesting the government to take up the (kitchen garden) programme on a pilot basis so that it can be implemented across the state,” hopes Yadav. Now it is up to the government alone to make sure this happens.
About the author: Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based independent reporter. Sumit Sharma is Kanpur-based independent reporter. Both are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.