Even though Indian states have adopted the Midday Meal Scheme that offers free meals to children in state-run or state-assisted schools, it is seen that majority of the schools face the risk of food poisoning and related health hazards due to lack of infrastructure and proper monitoring of the scheme.
The Midday Meal Scheme that was launched in 1995 to address ‘classroom hunger’, is now facing the risk of violating health norms. The scheme that was launched to boost school enrollment, retention and attendance and also to fight malnutrition among children is in the news these days for all the wrong reasons.
The pathetic condition of kitchens in Indian schools is evident as we hear about schools violating health norms almost every day. The students of Hasimpur Primary school in Murshidabad district of West Bengal had a narrow escape after worms were found in the government-sponsored midday meals that was being served to the students on July 21. When the guardians complained about it, the authorities claimed it to be cumin seeds. The guardians have alleged that the quality of food being served to students was deteriorating since last year.
A similar incident took place in Delhi’s Narela area on July 11, where 30 girl students fell ill after consuming midday meal in a government school. It was found that a baby lizard had fallen into their meal. The most horrific case was in Bihar when 23 children lost their lives after eating their midday meal on July 16, 2013.
The HRD Ministry received 30 complaints from across the country regarding poor quality of midday meals in the past three years. A total number of 887 students fell ill after having those meals during that period of time, union minister of state for HRD, Upendra Kushwaha, shared the information with Rajya Sabha on July 26.
In a recent case the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) has fined Stri Shakti Foundation, an NGO, with a penalty of INR 54,879, which was responsible for cooking midday meal for students of SDMC primary schools, for violating health and sanitation norms. In an inspection carried out by an official of the education department it was found that the kitchen staff of the NGO was found to be involved in gross irregularities.
India has the highest number of malnourished children in the entire world, says a joint study conducted by Assocham and EY in November 2017. The midday meal scheme that was launched to fight undernourishment in children is not following the health standards. According to statistics, maximum number of children that were reported to be ill after consuming midday meals were from Jharkhand (259), followed by Maharashtra (201) and Uttar Pradesh (154).
The Supreme Court on August 1 imposed a fine of INR 50,000 on Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand for their failure to create an online link with a chart meant for monitoring the implementation and hygiene of Midday Meal Schemes in government-run schools.
Majority of the schools face the risk of food poisoning and related health hazards due to lack of infrastructure and proper monitoring of the scheme, said a recent public interest petition seeking Indian Supreme Court’s intervention. The PIL has claimed that in over 1.2 million government-run and aided schools across the country, children receive free, cooked lunch every day but “they are constantly exposed to the risk of food poisoning and related health hazards due to a lack of midday meal infrastructure and proper monitoring of the scheme.”
Lack of implementation
The midday meal that was designed to increase the growing attendance in schools and help feed children, is failing in its implementation. The scheme feeds nearly 100 million school children daily.
In an academic paper titled Caste Discrimination in Mid Day Meals (MDM), it was found that though 99 pc of the schools had facilities for operation of the MDMS, and 97 pc of them provide cooked meal during most of the days, it was seen that only in 11 pc of the villages the food was served only a few days a week, while in 2 pc of the cases, it was served very rarely. It was also seen that in 38 pc of the cases, the prescribed menu was not followed and the quality of food was also allegedly poor.
“Despite release of funds by the government of India for kitchen-cum-stores, the state governments and implementing agencies failed to release these funds on time. This resulted in improper storage of food and cooking of meals in classrooms or open spaces in 14 states,” the report said. The CAG report that came out last year pointed that of the total 86,707 schools covered under MDMS in the state, around 84,523 schools have in-house kitchens. Of this, only 31,546 (37 pc) schools use LPG.
Casteism is another obstacle that the scheme has to face. On August 7, about 12 students of Thirumalaigoundanmpalayam government school in Tirupur district were hospitalised as they complained of vomiting after taking the noon meal. Students alleged that their cook, a Dalit woman, was involved in poisoning their midday meal. Last year too, it was reported that the students of a government primary school in Bhopal refused to take mid day meals prepared by scheduled caste women.