The midday meal scheme is a grand idea in a flawed school system. By ANIL SADGOPAL in Frontline
“THEY played here, studied here and got buried here!” (Yahin khela, yahin padha aur yahin ho gaya dafan). With these emphatic words, grieving parents buried the bodies of two children within the compound of the Dharmasati Gandaman Primary School of Masharakh block in Saran district of Bihar. This sentiment was expressed with great dignity even in the village the day after 23 children died after consuming a midday meal that was found to have been laced with a deadly organophosphorus insecticide. More than 50 children had taken ill after having the meal. The disaster of July 16 sent shock waves across the country.
But Bihar was not alone. Soon, similar reports started coming from Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. All this was a stunning reminder of how a girl died and about 100 students and their parents fell ill after consuming a midday meal, ironically, on Independence Day in 2011 at Kisli village near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh.
A couple of days after the Bihar disaster, an emotionally shaken primary schoolteacher got in touch with me. He is a senior leader of one of the progressive primary teachers’ organisations in Bihar. I asked him whether any of the children of the teachers of the unfortunate school were enrolled at the same school. “It is unlikely,” he responded. What about the president (a panchayat representative) of the Ad hoc School Education Committee (constituted in lieu of the School Management Committee required under the Right to Education (RTE) Act)? “It depends on the economic status of the person,” he gave a guarded response and elaborated that if the person had the means, her/his child would be studying in some private school, even if it was an unrecognised one, in Chhapra, the district headquarters. It would not be any different in the case of Block Education Officers or Block Development Officers, who are entrusted with the administration of the Mid Day Meal Scheme, or District Education Officers and Collectors around the country, who are directly responsible for ensuring the quality of one of India’s most acclaimed social welfare programmes. Their own children do not share the meals served under their supervision to almost 12 crore children.
The Union Budget this year has allocated more than Rs.13,000 crore for the scheme. The State/Union Territory governments and their legislatures are responsible for its implementation and monitoring. The Planning Commission evaluates the scheme and makes provisions to improve its implementation in successive Five-Year Plans.
A plethora of mindless suggestions, recommendations or quick-fix formulas were put forth in the media in the past fortnight to tighten the bolts of the midday meal scheme. The editorials, op-ed articles and TV panel debates naively told us how to monitor and administer the scheme and punish the guilty, implying that such provisions did not exist. Some experts suggested that the task of preparing and serving the meals be given to self-help groups of women, even as the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission directed the State government to withdraw the task from these very groups and make teachers responsible for getting the meal cooked on the school premises. Another expert proposed that in urban areas non-governmental organisations (NGOs) be outsourced this task under public-private participation (PPP). However, reports from several States reveal that this arrangement has failed miserably. A reputed newspaper’s editorial “discovered” that the solution lies in devolving power to the local community, without realising that this has been the case for long in many States/Union Territories.
The old parent-teacher committee or its new avatar, the school management committee under the RTE Act, has used various permutations and combinations of parents, community members, panchayat representatives and teachers to supervise and monitor the quality of the meals. Yet, despite the much-valued community involvement, shocking reports coming from all over the country of mismanagement and neglect, unhygienic conditions and unsafe meals provide evidence of the collapse of the monitoring and inspectorial system.
The students of Dharmasati Gandaman Primary School died not just because of the poisoned meal. Had the public health system not been so dilapidated, their precious lives could have been saved. The school did not have even a first-aid kit. The 7-km journey to the primary health centre at the Masharakh block headquarters and the next 50 km to Chhapra’s civil hospital and finally the 75-km journey to Patna Medical College tell the story of an insensitive and lackadaisical health care system compounded by the unavailability of ambulances or even ordinary vehicles, lack of antidote to the poison, and “helpless” doctors and district officials. During each lap, more children succumbed. It was almost 11 hours after the poison was consumed that effective treatment could be started at Patna Medical College. The story of the utter neglect of the public health system, meant for only the lower classes and castes, is no different from that of the government education system, both made worse by the neoliberal policies since 1991.
The funds for the midday meal scheme are being eyed for corporate profit. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with a micronutrient corporate conglomerate, backed by the World Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has managed to “convince” the government that the meals comprising grains, pulses and vegetables or even eggs and milk must be supplemented with folic acid and iron tablets. The packaged food lobby has argued that packaged food will eliminate the possibility of lizards, rats and snakes getting into the food. However, no one has pointed out that hardly any school has the provision for proper storage to ensure that the same creatures will not enter the packaged food when it is stored or processed.
The RTE Act provides for only “a kitchen where mid-day meal is cooked in the school”. It does not provide for a separate dining space, compelling teachers to use classrooms, which are often in an abominable condition. If separate storage and dining spaces are required for a policymaker’s family of four of five persons, why equivalent facilities would not be required in a school for storing materials and serving meals for 50 to 500 children is a moot question.
Of course, the chief scapegoat is the teacher. There is hardly any realisation that the teacher is paid and trained to teach, not to cook, manage purchases, arrange storage, collect fuelwood or keep accounts. Yet, the head teacher in Bihar is required to use a mobile phone to file daily reports with the headquarters of the State midday meal scheme regarding the expenditure incurred on vegetables, foodgrains, oil, spices and fuel, and wages paid to the cook and the helper. The head teacher is also required to fill out a complex form of several columns. No sooner has this been completed than she/he has to start arranging for fuelwood and provisions for the next day. If the head teacher is away on official duty or on leave, the other teacher shoulders the responsibility, leaving the five or eight classrooms either with only one teacher or none at all. On the day of the tragedy, the headmistress of the school concerned, now facing criminal charges, was alone in the school since the only other teacher appointed in the school, with an enrolment of 120 children, was on leave. The blatant reality: the children could eat but there was no one to teach them!
These midday meal-related tasks are in addition to the range of non-teaching tasks that government schoolteachers are required to perform, such as census and electoral duties (including updating of electoral roles) and now the new category of undefined and arbitrary “disaster-relief duties”, all legitimised by the RTE Act (Section 27). Since no clerical support for schools has ever been conceived, the teachers are required to do everything under the sun. It would be no one’s case that teachers are not responsible for their own share of dereliction of moral duty to teach. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that, under the neoliberal framework, the education system is increasingly designed neither to accord dignity to the teaching profession nor to promote a sense of commitment among teachers. It only breeds cynicism. Ironically, while poor children are compelled to sacrifice their studies in the name of national development (census work) and democracy (election work), the children of the upper classes and castes study in private schools and pursue their lucrative careers undisturbed, if not unconcerned.
The Tamil Nadu model
Here is a lesson from history. In 1958, Tamil Nadu, led by the visionary Chief Minister K. Kamaraj, became the first State to initiate a noon-meal programme. It worked because it was instituted in a well-functioning, State-funded common school system, designed to eliminate class- and caste-based segregation. But the responsibility rested entirely with the teachers, thereby adversely affecting teaching. Later, in the early 1980s, when M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was the Chief Minister, teachers launched a prolonged agitation asking them to be relieved of midday meal duties. MGR sanctioned a cook and an assistant for each school —more of them for larger schools —under direct government control. The quality of teaching improved, making Tamil Nadu a pace-setting State in education and child nutrition. As if in confirmation of this policy, the Allahabad High Court judgment, delivered on July 24, this year, declared that “the duty of teachers and principals of schools is to teach the students and not to supervise the cooking of meals”. The Uttar Pradesh government is expected to do what the Tamil Nadu government did three decades ago.
Despite the midday meal scheme’s objective of providing a platform to transcend religious, class and caste barriers and instil constitutional values in children, the ruling elite has abandoned the government-run scheme in 12 lakh schools. Neither the legislature nor the executive nor the judiciary has any stake in the system. Only the poorest sections of society, largely Dalits, tribal people, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), denotified tribes and Muslims, and the displaced or migrants, constitute the child population sharing school meals. Thus, the claim of the midday meal scheme being in a position to challenge religious, class and caste prejudices loses much of its force.
Finally, here is the mahamantra. In no way can the grand design of the scheme succeed in the flawed, multilayered school system. A fully state-funded common school system based on neighbourhood schools, governed in a decentralised, participative and democratic mode, is a precondition for its success, though not an adequate one. For this, there is no option other than to reverse the neoliberal policy which is bent upon converting education into a tradable commodity through PPP.
If we do not wake up even in the 64th year of the Republic, there will be, as Professor Amartya Sen said in a recent interview, “reasons for the country to hang its head in shame”, the rhetoric of “Shining India” notwithstanding.
Anil Sadgopal is member, presidium, All India Forum for Right to Education, and former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Delhi.