Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh: The website of the Uttar Pradesh Mid-Day Meal Authority (MDMA) proudly boasts of having won a gold trophy in “e-governance” for its innovative use of technology in monitoring the MDM scheme within the state. Using IVRS (interactive voice response system), a self-operated call is made to the authorised teacher of every school daily, who in turn responds by entering the total number of children who have successfully been provided a mid-day meal in that particular school. This allows the state government to effectively oversee as well as manage the scheme on a real-time basis.
Or so it claims.
In rural UP, what this award-winning system seems to be facilitating is a swell in numbers – of schools covered, meals cooked, children fed. The actual meal itself ranges from sub-standard and unhygienic to downright dangerous, such as the one we uncovered in Hanua village in the Chitrakoot district of U.P.
When we heard out the guardians and students of Hanua’s upper primary school complaining about the official apathy that shrouds the midday meals in their school, we followed up on the lead. We listened to them tell us about how pebbles, insects, worms, had often turned up in the food served to the students.
We spoke with an intimidated-looking Guddi, one of the students, who recounted, “There have been insects in our mid-day meals for the last six days, but the teachers only scold us when we complain to them about it.” Not surprisingly, the students have refused to consume these meals and, as a consequence, several of them have not been coming to school either.
The MDM is a centrally sponsored scheme launched in 1995 as a means to boost primary education and also to improve the nutritional levels of children. Its implementation, however, is plagued with the pervasive problem of mismanagement of funds, poor infrastructure and lack of proper training. The CAG report ending 2015, which surveyed 630 schools (out of over 16 lakh government schools) in UP threw up some dismal findings: over 30% of the schools lacked proper drainage and waste disposal facilities, while almost 20% did not even have proper doors or ventilation. In a blatant disregard of the MDM scheme guidelines, in more than half the schools covered, cooks had not been imparted any official training – in habits of hygiene or otherwise.
Furthermore, there was no involvement on the part of the community members or voluntary organisations in ensuring a standardised quality of meal that takes into account safety and hygiene measures during the cooking process.
The report also revealed that excessive and unrealistic demands were made by the state government at the time of budget allocation, and funds amounting to Rs 600 crore were lying unutilised with schools, the MDMA and the state government. The indifferent response of Hanua’s Pradhan in this matter is a fitting testimony to this. Says Sanjay Kumar, “It is nothing like what you’ve heard. During the rainy season, grains tend to have a few insects here and there – it’s natural! As long as the food is cooked properly, it can easily be taken care of.”
This, though, is anything but a rare, isolated occurrence. In 2013, frogs had been found in the mid-day meal served at two schools in UP, one of them in Chitrakoot. Four students fell seriously ill while the concerned officials played that favourite sport of shifting the blame. And again, in 2015, the district of Chitrakoot had come under fire regarding the MDM scheme, when 124 children had to be rushed to the hospital after consuming the mid-day meal.
When we questioned the principal of the school in Hanua, Sanjeev Mishra, we only got evasive and generic answers. Mishra was not interested in addressing the incident at hand. “I personally pay close attention to cleanliness and hygiene in the school. I inspect the kitchens regularly and have particularly instructed the workers to wash their hands and to keep the kitchens clean. We have even kept soaps for the students to wash their hands before they are sat down and served their food. Meals are being arranged and provided satisfactorily here in this school, keeping in mind all rules and guidelines.”
This is entirely inconsistent with what Guddu Pal, the guardian of one of the students, has to say: “The kids have been complaining about worms and insects in their food for the last four or five days. And when they complain to the teachers, you know what they say? ‘Does your mother cook a delicious feast for you at home or what?’ What’s more, they even abuse the children and threaten assault.”
Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.