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The poisoned plate

Posted by Shreyans Jain Friday, 9 August 2013 0 comments
The Mid Day Meal Scheme is perhaps one of the most significant welfare programme covering about 10.54 crore children in India. The scheme has several vital objectives like providing specified levels of calories and protein to pre-primary and primary school students, providing employment opportunities to women et cetera. Not only does the programme involve the entire community but it also integrates children from different communities by dismantling caste barriers and ensuring that they have a meal together. The programme has been successful in increasing enrolments in schools and decreasing dropouts from school. But the recent shocking incident that led to the death of at least 22 children belonging to the age group of 8-12 years in Saran district of Bihar after being fed contaminated food is a grim reminder of the fact that the world’s largest intervention against hunger still remains a deplorable tale of bureaucratic apathy, negligence, utter disregard for child rights and a failure of proper implementation.

Such a massive scheme cannot run without strong commitment of implementation officials and bureaucracy. But the failure of the authorities to ensure hygienic cooking conditions and nutritional standards is a telling commentary on their commitment to universal primary education. What could have been more horrifying for the innocent children for whom their temple of education turned into their graveyard? What could have been more terrorising for the parents of these children who remained mute spectators to the torment of their children and see them die before their own eyes? What could have been more heart-rending for an Indian citizen to lament the loss of future citizens who had been fed poison disguised as food to satiate their appetite?

It is a matter of great concern that such man-made tragedies and lackadaisical approach of the concerned authorities can shake the faith of citizens in such a crucial welfare programme. Lack of adequate infrastructure for supply-cum-storage, dearth of skilled manpower, inefficient administration of nutritional standards of the food grains served and absence of hygienic culinary conditions point to a colossal failure on the part of the government. The teachers are laden with several responsibilities besides teaching like collection of fees, distribution of books and uniforms, election duties, conducting remedial classes after school hours – all for the same pay. No doubt this leads to callousness and a feeling of indifference towards work.

To strengthen the Mid Day Meal Scheme, the tax collection stood at Rs. 27,461 crores during 2011-12 which was distributed proportionally among different states. However, these funds seldom reach the intended beneficiaries which results in the purchase of sub-standard food grains from the open market and subsequent deterioration of nutritional standards. Unsurprisingly, children are served with dead lizards, rats and snakes being found where the food is cooked.

The need of the hour is to make the public system more accountable by strengthening commitment among policymakers and the bureaucracy. Politicisation of such sensitive issues should be a big NO. Tools like social audit should be employed for public vigilance and for generating among the masses. NGOs can be assigned greater role in scrutinising the quality of food and hygiene so that a better stakeholder approach is adopted. There is an urgent need to crack the whip on corrupt officials who jeopardise the lives of innocent children for their own monetary considerations. Infrastructure should be upgraded in schools and a platform should be provided to facilitate parent-teacher interaction.

Let us not desecrate an institution that produces workforce for the future.


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