21 November, 2008
The midday meal in Jharkhand does not reach those who need it, nor does it heal the social divide in the state
Midday meal has been recognized as one of the key components of the Total Literacy Programme, playing a crucial role in bringing children to schools. The midday meal was introduced following a Supreme Court directive to the state governments in November 2001 to provide cooked food in all government primary schools and schools receiving government aid. The scheme was revised several times, its budget increased and its reach extended to the whole country. According to a report published by the state government of Jharkhand, the midday meal is doing what it is supposed to do. There were 30 lakh children not attending schools in 2002 but the midday meals in schools brought back 28 lakh children including dropouts to school. Their regular attendance has shot up to 70 percent. The education minister, Bandhu Tirkey has only good things to say about the midday meal.
But there is another side to the story that the minister refuses to acknowledge. The children are not served proper meals as per the menu and provisions. Since the programme got underway, the children of Baxidipa Primary school in Lohardagga district of Jharkhand have never been served a proper meal. 12 year-old Chandan Oraon of Class 5 says, "We are served khichidi with worms. The menu displayed on the wall is never adhered to". 10 year old Poonam Oraon says, "We are served khichidi in school everyday. This does not feed our stomach". While the teachers and the villagers are always at loggerheads on the matter, the midday meal has become a milch cow for the government officials and teachers.
According to the head teacher of Baxidipa Primary School, Sahodri Devi, the school cannot be blamed for the food supply. She says, "We receive 30 kg rice in a pack meant for 50 kg and Rs 250 for vegetables and the cook's wages. It is just not possible to feed children properly with all this." Sahodri Devi was suspended following the intervention by a local organisation HOPE, which monitors the midday meal in a few schools of Lohardagga district. She was found guilty of misappropriation of funds under the midday meal scheme. "During our visits, they stick to the menu, and then they switch back to the khichidi again", says Manorama Ekka, the director of HOPE.
The objectives of midday meal scheme are namely improving the nutrition of the school children, encouraging disadvantaged children to attend school regularly and helping them focus on their studies. It has a provision of providing cooked midday meal with 450 calories and 12 grams of protein, adequate quantities of nutrients like Iron, Folic Acid and Vitamin-A to all primary school children and the calorific value of a midday meal at upper primary stage has been fixed at a minimum of 700 calories and 20 grams of protein by providing 150 grams of food grain per child per school day. But in reality, children are given merely 50-100 grams rice, 30 grams pulse and, once in a while, vegetables too. The menu is followed in a very few schools which are either properly monitored by or feel the pressure of the civil society organisations.
The Department of School Education and Literacy of the Ministry of Human Resource Development has prescribed a comprehensive and elaborate mechanism for the monitoring and supervision of the midday meal scheme. The monitoring mechanism has an arrangement for local-level monitoring: Gram Sabha representatives, members of VECs, PTAs, SDMCs as well as ( Mata Samiti) Mothers' Committees are required to monitor the regularity and wholesomeness of the mid day meal served to children, cleanliness in cooking and serving of the midday meal, timeliness in procurement of good quality ingredients and fuel, implementation of a varied menu, and social and gender equity. This is required to be done on a daily basis.
On paper, the Village Education Committee (VEC) and Mata Samiti play the key role in monitoring the scheme but both the committees are non-functional. The chairman of the village education committee Shanker Oraon of Baxidipa says, "I don't know how much rice comes to the school. I'm not even informed. The head teacher merely asks me to sign on the cheque. I follow her instruction." The Village Education Committees never meet but the registers and minute books are well maintained with attendance and signature of all the respective members. A teacher of Baxidipa Pimari School, Som Oraon says, "We take the registers of VEC to the houses for getting the signatures of the members. But, since the head teacher belongs to the village, no one questions it."
According to rules, the information should be made public under Right to Information Act 2005 in order to ensure that there is transparency and accountability. All schools and centres where the programme is being implemented are required to furnish information. This includes information on quantity of food grains received, date of receipt, quantity of food grains utilised, ingredients purchased and utilised, number of children given midday meal, the daily menu and the roster of community members involved in the programme. In practice, nothing apart from the daily menu is made public.
Though the scheme envisages bridging the gulf between communities, dalit children don't even sit with other children to eat. The teachers don't even eat the meals, acknowledging the fact they don't meet the standards. The dalit cooks have been asked to leave after several instances of caste children refusing to eat. In Itkhori block of Chatra district, children refused to have a meal prepared by a Dalit woman. The administration intervened, threatening to lodge a complaint against the parents under Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. Eventually, the parents relented. Similarly, after the parents demanded that a non-dalit cook be recruited in the primary school of Putki, Dhanbad, the scheme had to be discontinued for three months.
While the teachers and the governments have a regular source of income in the midday meal, the children return home hungry. They merely do the paper work, maintain the registers and take the food to their houses. The fact that this never strikes the villagers as not being right is an indication of their awareness levels. The mindset that pervades the society here is that the schools do not belong to them but to the government. While they are willing to contribute to the building of the churches, temples and mosques, there is no sense of ownership about the schools. There is an urgent need for the communities to understand that they are equal stakeholders as the government in the running of their local school.
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