Print edition : August 23, 2013

Schoolchildren who took ill after having a midday meal at Dharmasati Gandaman Primary School in Saran district of Bihar recuperating in the Patna Medical College and Hospital on July 18. Twenty-three children died in the tragedy that occurred two days earlier. Photo: AFP

Cooking a midday meal in an unhygienic environment at Midthur in Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh. A file picture. Photo: U. SUBRAMANYAM

The midday meal poisoning in Bihar has prompted the government to initiate superficial measures, but important steps like appointing regular coordinators to maintain accounts and supervise the system have been ignored.

THE death of 23 children after consuming a midday meal contaminated with an organophosphorus pesticide at a primary school in Mashrakh block of Saran district in Bihar on July 16 brought to the fore a range of issues regarding the midday meal programme in the country. But a few others such as the welfare of midday meal workers and the role of private sector initiatives in the midday meal scheme got scant attention.

An embattled Bihar government sought to stave off criticism amid various conspiracy theories, but an inquiry report by the Additional Secretary of the Union Human Resource Development Ministry blamed the State government for “grave negligence”. The cooking was done in the open in the school, which was run from a community building. The oil used for cooking was procured from a shop owned by the husband of the headmistress.

The government, stung by criticism, suspended the headmistress and directed teachers to henceforth taste the cooked food before serving them to children. These are at best superficial measures even as systemic ones like that of appointing regular coordinators to maintain accounts and supervise the system have been ignored. Corruption is a serious issue in the midday meal programme.

The midday meal programme in the country is said to be the world’s largest school feeding programme and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government does not tire claiming credit for it. However, the incident in the Bihar school has exposed not only the cavalier attitude of the Central and some State governments as far as the monitoring of the scheme is concerned but also the free hand given to private operators which allows them to flout the guidelines of the scheme. Measures like tasting the food before serving it obfuscate the real problems that bog the scheme down—for instance, the manner in which midday meal workers are treated. “The only incentive for them, working at such pitiable rates, is the one free meal they get,” said A.R. Sindhu, secretary, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

Worst of conditions

In a memorandum to Jiten Prasada, Union Minister of State for Human Resource, the All India Coordination Committee of Mid Day Meal Workers (affiliated to the CITU) pointed out that a number of schools in the country did not have proper kitchens or storage space. Supply of cooking gas was erratic and where there was no gas connection, workers had to collect firewood, it said.

The workers, all from socially and economically backward communities, are expected to provide the best of service under the worst of conditions. They have no regular wage or social security. Employed on a part-time basis, they work for more than six to eight hours a day and are paid an honorarium of just Rs.1,000 a month, and that too for only 10 months a year. Sindhu said that the honorarium was not paid in full and given after six or seven months.

The government, the delegation pointed out, turned a blind eye to the unanimous recommendation of the trade unions at the 45th Indian Labour Conference that those employed under the midday meal scheme be recognised as workers and given minimum wages and other social security benefits. Most often, workers who suffered injuries while cooking could not avail themselves of first aid or proper treatment. In the case of the school in Bihar, there was no decent public health facility where the children could be administered treatment. The delegation that met the Minister also felt that it was unfair to burden the teachers with preparing midday meals.

In a shocking move that discriminated against midday meal workers, the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments issued a circular stating that only those women would be retained as workers whose children studied in the same school. “What if the worker has older children who have got married? Why isn’t a similar conditionality placed for the teacher?” a worker asked. There have been regular protests by midday meal workers against their arbitrary retrenchment. On July 29, the Udupi district unit of Akshara Dasoha Workers Association submitted a memorandum to the Karnataka Chief Minister demanding the regularisation of their work and an end to the privatisation of the midday meal scheme. The association said the move to privatise it would deprive at least one lakh women of their livelihood. Rather than outsource it to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the government should monitor the scheme, it said.

Centralised kitchens

While the focus has been on the poorly run scheme in government schools, the situation in the privately managed, centralised kitchens run by corporates and large NGOs has not been any better. Many child rights organisations that castigated the government over the tragedy in Bihar failed even to mention that the midday meals provided by private agencies also needed to come under the scanner. The delegation that met Jiten Prasada told him that the job of preparing food by agencies such as The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the Akshay Patra Foundation, the Naandi Foundation and corporates such as Vedanta needed to be stopped immediately. The Haryana government has given the ISKCON Foundation the contract to run the midday meal scheme in four districts through its centralised kitchen.

Jai Bhagwan, general secretary of the midday meal workers’ union in Haryana, told Frontline that there were innumerable cases where lizards and other insects had been found in the food cooked in the centralised kitchens run by private entities. “There should be government fair price shops that supply raw materials locally. In a centralised system, there is a lot of corruption. As it is made in bulk, a lot of raw materials can be siphoned off. Often the food is prepared early in the morning, packed in tiffin boxes, and by the time it reaches schools by noon, it becomes stale. There are 16 items listed by the State government that should be part of the midday meal diet. But private entities like ISKCON that run centralised kitchens in some districts in the State provide only six items. The number of people that are hired in the centralised kitchens are also small as compared to those who prepared the food locally,” he said, listing some of the concerns.

The midday meal scheme, Sindhu said, should be included in the Food Security Act as it was an issue concerning the food security of children. It also needed to be extended to cover children studying up to class 12, she said. “Instead of taking measures to fill the gaps in the inputs and the implementation of the scheme, there is a very conscious move from many quarters, taking advantage of the fear and anger of the beneficiaries, to malign the scheme and privatise it,” the delegation told the Minister.

For instance, Akshay Patra says it employs a public-private partnership (PPP) model to implement its midday meal programme and through this it counters hunger and illiteracy. “Hence a strategic partnership of companies through corporate social responsibility with Akshay Patra has the potential to bring in a future that will be hunger-free and educated,” says a background note of the organisation and encourages strategic philanthropy through cash and in-kind contributions.

“Why should they ask for donations in the name of feeding the poor when they are getting the full amount from the government? They receive corporate funding in the name of CSR. It is time their profit levels are inquired into,” said Sindhu, adding that if the food quality was poor, it would always be the worker who was in the dock.

In fact, the Human Resource Ministry, in its joint review mission of the performance of the midday meal scheme in Haryana, said the State government had violated the guidelines by allowing ISKCON’s centralised kitchen to run and supply food to schools. Under the programme guidelines, centralised kitchens can be allowed only in urban centres which had a paucity of space for construction of stores and kitchens. The Ministry’s team found that such stores in schools in at least three blocks of Kurukshetra district, Thanesar, Pehowa and Ladwa, where 55,000 children were given meals, had been lying vacant and unused.

In fact, the Haryana government had been projecting the efforts of the centralised kitchen as a model for the rest of the State. The notion of the centralised kitchen run by private entities was contrary to the larger principles of the scheme, which included social cohesiveness, community participation, and women’s empowerment, apart from the feeding of children.

The team also found that the number of meals provided was not proportionate to the quantity of raw materials that had been used. Neither was the nutritional requirement adequate as vegetables were not part of the food prepared.

Jai Bhagwan gave a list of the reports of contamination in the food prepared by ISKCON. In 2011, after lizards were found in food prepared by the Foundation in Kurukshetra district, several children were hospitalised and several panchayats refused to accept the food prepared by it. On July 22 this year, in Lohagarh school in Palwal district, he said, a dead lizard and some insects were found in the food. The administration passed orders for the recall of the food supplied that day after the colour of the food had changed.

The same day, four children in Pehowa were hospitalised after having a midday meal. On July 24, in Thanesar block of Kurukshetra district, the gruel that reached Kamboj Majra village was stale and five children were admitted to hospital after eating it, he said. On July 24, in Sohna block of Gurgaon district, a mosquito repellent coil was found in the food supplied in a school.

All this points to the fact that solutions are not simple and there has to be a multi-pronged approach to tackle the systemic problems in the midday meal programme. No doubt, the scheme has played a great role in checking dropouts, but it should not be the last resort for the children and for the poorly paid and hugely overburdened midday meal workers. It should also not be an opportunity for profiteering by private entities under the garb of corporate social responsibility. The Bihar incident is a tragic eye-opener in more than one sense.