New Delhi, July 28 (IANS) The mid-day meal tragedy in Bihar, which killed 23 children who ate contaminated cooked food, has turned the national spotlight on problems affecting the flagship government scheme which provides lunch to nearly 120 million children in India every day - with lack of monitoring and hygiene, as also huge corruption, discrediting what is called the world's largest school feeding programme.
While reports of insects or lizards being found in the meal keep cropping up, unhygienically cooked and under-nutritious food are the other issues dogging the scheme. The mid-day meal scheme provides children in over 1.2 million government-run schools a hot and nutritious meal every day, which besides encouraging attendance and improving nutritional levels, also helps to arrest dropout rates.
Experts say the scheme suffers from structural problems, the biggest being the lack of a proper monitoring mechanism.
"The mid-day meal scheme was adopted on the pattern of the Madras Municipal Corporation school lunch scheme. The problem is there is no clear structure defined, and every state functions according to its wish," said Ambrish Rai, convenor of the Right to Education Forum, an umbrella body of NGOs working in the field of education.
"In most places, it is a matter for the teachers to manage. In some places, NGOs or private contractors do the job. The scheme is better managed in south Indian states, but in the northern part of the country the situation is pathetic," Rai told IANS.
Rai said "huge corruption" at all levels was destroying the scheme.
"Children are getting low quality and insufficient food; hence there is lack of nutrition. Corruption is involved in the delivery system. Fake enrolments are being done to embezzle money. These rackets are killing this very important scheme, and the main reason is lack of guidelines and institutionalisation," he said.
Mohammed Irfail, who is attached to the Right to Food campaign and is working in the field of mid-day meals in West Bengal, said lack of monitoring is the biggest problem.
"Government agencies are not doing the monitoring. Even if there are committees at some places, they are not functional. They submit reports sitting at their tables without having visited schools. How would the government ever know what is happening in the name of mid-day meal scheme?" Irfail said.
"The government says it is taking all the steps, but it is an eyewash. There is no infrastructure in schools; many of them have no running water; hygiene is not maintained; and in addition, the money provided fills the pockets of those who arrange for supplies," Irfail told IANS.
Irfail went on to allege that he smelled a rat in the government's treatment of the scheme.
"Perhaps the government does not want the scheme to function properly. They want problems to be created so that people ask them to stop the scheme altogether. Maybe they want to hand over the scheme to some corporate organisation," he said.
Irfail added that in places where self-help groups or NGOs have been roped in for the scheme, delay in payment is a big problem.
"Even where NGOs are providing the meal, the payment is low, and delayed. When they do not get payment for 5-6 months, they lose their morale," he said.
Ashok Agarwal, a Delhi-based advocate who has been fighting for issues concerning the right to education, said the attitude of school authorities towards the children is also a major issue.
"In most of the schools I have seen in Delhi, especially in the outer areas of Delhi, the school authorities treat children like a burden. The manner of distributing the meal is not dignified," Agarwal told IANS.
"The principal of one aided school told me that children get food from home, because the mid-day meal portions are not sufficient. No one is there to see if the lunch boxes of the children (in which they are doled the food) are clean; sometimes left-over food is given; the utensils used for cooking and serving are also not clean," he said.
Agarwal added that the process of distributing the mid-day meal is also taking a toll on teaching.
"A lot of children are from very poor families. They come without having breakfast, and so they cannot study in the first half as they are hungry. In some schools, the process of distributing lunch takes two hours or more; by that time school time is over. When will the child study?" he questioned.
Asked what can be a possible solution for streamlining the scheme, the experts suggest involving the parents and local community as a good option.
"If the local community is involved, if parents are involved in the process of serving mid-day meals, the situation will improve. School management committees defined under the Right to Education act can be a good way," said Agarwal.
(Anjali Ojha can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)