Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Midday meal program in India-Whose interest it is serving?

 For the last several days in Karnataka, news papers were full of reports regarding the mid day school lunch program in a small village near Mysore where caste politics have caused considerable damage to the teaching environment there. The issue,  raised by this "storm in the tea cup" incidence as some people like to call it, poses a pertinent question regarding the very foundation of the concept of national school feeding programs across all the states. A honest citizen always wonders why the government is resorting to universal feeding in schools forcing all children attending a school where such a program is running to eat the "foods" cooked inside the school premises even if many of them can afford bringing good nutritious food from their home. The excuse for this program has been to try 100% attendance in the school as a part of right to education for every citizen. But the experience in this Karnataka village brings out starkly the anomaly of the program and in the face of some children refusing to eat the foods cooked in the school, authorities concerned were at a loss as to what to do next! 

Indian constitution confers on a citizen, even if he is a school going kid, the basic right to what he wants to eat or not to eat and therefore making it compulsory for all kids to eat the locally cooked foods, whatever be the reason, is coercive and unconstitutional. The "circus" going in this school to gloss over the issue is really amusing. Big politicians, religious saints and others are visiting this school and eating the same food as that being eaten by the students to show case their commitment to a "caste-less" society! The real issue is not caste or creed but the acceptability of the food to all children in the school. Why those who do not like the school foods should be "finger pointed" is baffling. In stead of making eating environment hygienic and clean, wrong emphasis is laid on eating only one food cooked locally! 

In another case reported from the city of Meerut in UP, teachers in a government school refused to eat the locally foods as they felt they are inedible! What logic is there in forcing the same food down through the throat of the hapless children is not clear. According to the rules prevalent governing school foods service, teachers are mandated to taste them before serving the same to the children and this is observed more in breach than adherence. If the teachers cannot eat the food how can the school authorities expect the children to accept them unless coercion is used. Shamelessly the school management routinely claims that complaints filed with higher authorities are routinely ignored and the situation continues, totally insensitive to the welfare of the kids! Does not this amount to criminal negligence on the part of the education department officials and local school management? Is there no solution to this systemic failure? Is it not a national blemish about which every Indian must hang his head in shame?

The concept of midday school feeding program is a novel idea, no doubt but the way it is practiced in the country needs reexamination. Every school must enroll voluntarily the names of kids wanting to be served with food during the lunch time. This should be based on economic criteria rather than on universal basis. Probably inertia on the part of the government in conducting surveys to identify families with low income who deserve free lunch in the school has resulted in opting for an easy recourse to giving food to every body without caring for the waste of resources on a worthless cause. In India there is considerable extent of suppression of income data by the citizens to get the benefit of many subsidies doled out by the governments at the central and state levels and this habit must be curbed as mercilessly as possible for the sake of the country and its honest law abiding citizens.. 

This Blogger has been raising the issue of school feeding during the last 30 years and always frowned upon the the "fresh food serving" lobby which has a powerful vested interest in making a fast buck from such programs through politician-bureaucrat-private contractor nexus. The meager budget for the food program reflects the sham that is being perpetuated in the name of education, social equity and poverty. In spite of some crazy politicians claiming that one can get a sumptuous meat for Rs 5 in this country, the ground reality is totally different. With rice costing Rs 50 per kg, edible oil price beyond Rs 70 per liter, Milk being sold at more than Rs 30 a liter, wheat flour available at prices more than Rs 40 per kg and egg Rs 5 a piece, what nutritious food can be served in the school at the ridiculously low budget of Rs 5 per head. A complete meal must have 16% proteins, at least about 400 kC of energy and adequate micro nutrients that will meet at least 50% of daily Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). If government wants to do justice to its school feeding program it has to double its present budget if 100% of kids in all schools are to be covered. Is it feasible? 

Another mind boggling issue is how advisable it is to make the school assume responsibility associated with raw material procurement, their safe storage, cooking within the premises with crude cooking facilities, accessing safe potable water, arranging for cooking fuel etc. With most schools grossly understaffed, is it fair to load the available teachers with additional burden of looking after the feeding program? No wonder instances like that in Meerut city keep happening all over the country. Food technologists, Nutritionists, medical practitioners, policy makers and industry reps must sit together to evolve a more credible and reassuring programs that will depend on packed foods, centrally manufactured and safety packed with minimum nutritional value and stable shelf life which are amenable to easy distribution, stocking, accounting, serving with minimum risk to the health of the children. 


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