Big Questions of Important Schemes

Today, the question whether the mid-day meal scheme is actually able to ensure the basic rights of education and nutrition for the children living in shadows of poverty and negligence has assumed gigantic proportions. The question becomes more important in the context of the present form and character of the scheme.

At the Gothra Kapoora village in Sheopur district of MP, there is only one teacher for the 108 children enrolled in the government school. The teacher Gajraj Singh stays at village Peda, which is 33 kms away and visits the school only two or three times a month. These are the only days when the children in the school get mid-day meal. The president of the Parents' Teachers Association of the school Shyamlal Adiwasi made lot of efforts but owing to the negligent and corrupt system, there were no changes. He knows that his signatures – as required – are not there on the receipts and yet the teacher is able to obtain the monthly ration meant for the mid-day meal scheme. But Shyamlal Adiwasi does not complain about the teacher thinking that it would serve no purpose as the teacher could maximum be suspended. The teacher had been suspended four years ago, but that led to the school remaining closed for a year. The administration did not make any new appointment and reinstated Gajraj Singh after a year. Nothing changed.

It was considered that the mid-day meal scheme would serve twin objective. Not only would it provide nutrition to the primary school students and ensure their physical and mental development, but also lead to increase in enrolment and attendance of the children in school. But the collapse of education system in MP, corruption in the scheme, the problem of quality and quantity of the food served and hindrances related to implementation, the scheme seems to be in danger.

According to the affidavit filed by the state government in the Supreme Court, the scheme is being implemented in 100 per cent schools of the state, but since teachers are not available in many schools, how would the children get the meal.

A recent study in Sendhwa block of Badwani district by Yale Fox fellow of Jawarharlal Nehru University Nicholas Robinson quotes four teachers of a school saying that 10 per cent of the amount meant for the pulses, vegetables and species meant for the scheme goes to the officials. Unless this commission is paid, the amount is not released. The teachers are asked to make fake increase in attendance of children in school so that this amount could be adjusted. The residents of Aamjhiri village know that the teachers are selling off the food grains meant for the mid-day meal scheme, but they do not know what action to initiate against this irregularity. Complaining against the teachers in any situation is perilous step for them as these teachers are responsible for many other works such as BPL survey, selection of children for scholarship and declaring the school results. In such situation, the villagers are always in a dilemma.

It is important that the government and administration take steps by self-motivation in these matters. Owing to this corrupt system, two major problems are cropping up. First they are not getting the nutritious food and second that the schools are showing fake attendance of 90 to 100 pc. This is leading to slackening of the actual government efforts and burgeoning of claims. The effect of `commission' is clearly visible on the ground level.

The president of the Parents' Teachers' Association of the Ranipura Village in Sheopur district refused to give any `share' to the officials and in year 2005, mid-day meal scheme was not served even for one-day in the school. In 2006, amount was released only for seven months and the villagers had to sell personal crops to fulfill the needs of pulses, vegetables and spices for the mid-day meal scheme, yet the children could get food for only ten days in a month. Since the Kotwal (the official responsible for monitoring and taking action) is also involved in the matter, no action is expected on his part. It seems that the government itself has left some loopholes in the system that is preventing it from getting strengthened.

The government is severely exploiting the cooks under this scheme. The provision is that the cooks would get an amount of 45 paise per child as remuneration and the amount includes the cost of the fuel for cooking the food. In realty, the cooks just get 25 paise per child. In the government school of Bhondki Village in Seoni district, the cook stopped cooking the mid-day meal because she was getting only Rs nine per day to cook for 21 children and of this Rs four was spent for the fuel. Now the villagers have started contributing Rs 6 per family per month, so that the cook gets Rs 15 per day. In most parts of the state, the quality of the food is suffering because of the problem of payment to the cooks. This is not a matter of one or two villages but a trend in thousands of school. It is ironic that the state government is privatizing the mid-day meal scheme by making this problem a basis. Apart from the urban areas, the government has now given contract for supplying the mid-day meal to an organisation called Nandi Foundation in rural areas too. By taking this step, the government has excluded the feature of social equity from the scheme. The Supreme Court's directive is that the responsibility of cooking the mid-day meal should be given to the dalits, tribal and the persons of deprived sections of the society. The objective was that when children of all classes would eat the food cooked by dalits, the system of untouchability would slowly perish. But this objective seems to be totally neglected now.

It seems now a policy of adjustment of food is being followed. At the Barkhedi Primary School in capital, food for 115 children are sent although the total strength of the students at the school is 215 while for 215 children at the Rashidia School food worth 127 children is supplied. This situation of inadequate supply of food is one of the discrepancies that have come to light owing to the involvement of external and private agencies in the process.

The community expects that the scheme should not be restricted to 200 days in a year. It gives rise to a very odd situation when the children do not get mid-day meal for about eight to ten days a month. If the system is finalised that the children would get the meal every day at school it would make the arrangements of the poor labour class families easier. Normally children are not sent to school because they have to take care of their younger siblings at home. In few villages of Jhabua district have started bringing along their siblings to the school. It is thus important that the government does not restrict the number of days or quantity of food, but understands the importance and wider impact of the scheme.

There are chances of the children getting at least food once a day, but the provision of drinking water is a big challenge. Of the 81000 odd primary schools in the state, almost 22000 do not facility of clean drinking water. The Supreme Court in its order of April 20, 2004 had said that there should be proper arrangements of infrastructure and pure and safe drinking water in all schools. Despite this order, in the Chhacharya village of Badwani district, there is no arrangement of drinking water for the 525 children in the school and they have to travel to the same hand pump to drink water that is used by the entire village. In Dhavli village, the water for cooking food is brought in from a distance of 1.5 kms. All the hand pumps in the Rahron village of Sheopur district are non-functional since last one year. Despite complaints, the administration took no notice of the problem. So the villagers and the students drink water from a local river that is obviously polluted and is about a km away from the school.

Presently, one of the biggest reasons for increased attendance in schools is the mid-day meal scheme, but the way it is getting entangled in the basic problems of implementation might negatively impact the efforts towards ensuring the rights of education and nutrition. To make this process more fruitful, there is necessity of coming up with well planned and practically effective policies. Now when even the teachers are working on contract, their efforts are concentrated towards retaining the contract. Ironically the matter of continuation of their contract is related to corruption and political will rather than hard work and working style. This scheme could only be effective with the support of community and panchayat. But the government would have to ensure that the budget and the system should be practical and as per the need.  

Sachin Kumar Jain

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