New Delhi: For the average middle class Indian, the Midday Meal (MDM) scheme in Delhi government schools may appear to be a ticking bomb. The schools are under-resourced, ingredients poor, safety checks minimal, and neither the NGO which prepares the food nor the teachers who distribute it can vouch for the quality of the food -- which often contains worms, and one occasion, a rat. But the school staff claim the MDM in the nation's capital is one of the better run programmes.
Sanjay Srivastava (name changed), a principal in one of the 13 schools run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), in East Delhi's Trilokpuri area says the midday meals in Delhi are far safer than others in the rural heartland.
"What happened in Bihar should not have happened. It is a huge tragedy. But just because there are a few bad apples in the system doesn't mean everyone is like that," Srivastava said.
"Delhi's MDM scheme is much safer and more stringent that way. It's not like we never have complaints about the food, but they are minor ones like the food not being hot when it arrives or the rice or pulses not having been cooked well," he told Firstpost.
However, Parvati, a local resident whose son is in class 1 in Singh's school complained about the quality of food.
"While my son has never fallen ill because of it, at least twice I have seen small white worms in the food my son got home from school. The worms are tiny and look like rice and many a time it could have been consumed without being noticed," she said.
Another parent, Hemlata, whose son also studies in class 1 in the school said that he has also had a bad experience with the food served in school.
"Once my son came home with food served in school, which was smelling," she said.
An NGO that runs kitchens and serving food to the East Delhi area of Trilokpuri, does not refute these allegations, but says the government and teachers are to be blamed for this.
Stri Shakti, one of the NGOs contracted to prepare and distribute midday meals, has five centralized kitchens across Delhi and provides food to 591 schools. Their Loni kitchen, under which the Trilokpura area falls, supplies food for midday meals to 208 schools each day.
According to Jaspreet Singh, Manager, Srti Shakti, the NGO he says follows the strictest norms of hygiene and cleanliness in cooking, but some things cannot be avoided and the government does not cooperate.
"A lot of times in this season there are insects which are usually inside the pulses and even the rice we receive from the Food Corporation of India (FCI). Green leafy veggies also pose a problem in this season, with worms in them," he said.
"We try our best to do what we can with the conditions we are given and in fact we have requested the government to have menus that are seasonal so that we don't have these problems, but their menu throughout the year is fixed," he said.
Stri Shakti claims it serves 3,60,000 students each day across Delhi and that they make sure the food reaches schools within 1.5 hours from the time it leaves from the kitchen. The food is transported in steel containers and in hired tempos. The NGO says it can only do so much given government constraints.
"We get 100 gms of rice and wheat per child + Rs. 3.11/child (for other ingredients, vegetables, oil, transport). While we have a tie up with ingredient companies and wholesale vegetable vendors, enabling us to buy at less than MRP, we spend Rs. 5-6/child in Delhi," Singh of Stri Shakti told Firstpost.
"We cover the extra costs through personal donations and profits made by our other units," he said.
If the NGO's hands are tied, the schools faces the challenge of making the most of too few hands. Principals and teachers in the schools say that severe under-staffing makes the management of the midday meal scheme more difficult.
Far from the prescribed student teacher ratio of 40:1 under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, most of the 2,720 government schools in Delhi have a ratio 1.5 times that number or more. Despite the Trilokpuri school having 350 students and conducting classes from standard 1 to 5, with each standard having two sections, it has only six teachers presently.
It amounts to a ratio of 58.3 students to a teacher. In April this year, the school had only four teachers -- making the student to teacher ratio 88:1, more than double the prescribed ratio.
Srivastava said his school's teachers are already overworked, and yet have no choice but to take up additional responsibilities thrust on them by virtue of being government employees. Teachers already playing the role of administrators, clerks and peons in the school. But they are also forced to shoulder additional the responsibilities during elections, census taking and other government surveys. Checking food safety becomes one more task in an already long chore list.
"After already performing more than 5 duties at any given time, the midday meal scheme puts on us an additional responsibility. When will we have time to teach the students?" asks 45-year old Ramesh Garg (name changed), who has taught at the school for the last 17 years.
Srivastava says while the midday meal scheme is welcome, he says schools first priority is to educate the children.
"Students need teachers more than they need food. It's more important that they get a good education. Parents who have given birth to them will feed them somehow, but if they don't learn what they are supposed to in school, parents cannot teach them that," he told Firstpost.
The over-burdened teachers and principal often become the immediate target for parents' anger when there are problems with the food.
"We are helpless in conducting quality checks because it's not like we have our own kitchen. If we did we could first hand monitor it. The most we can do, which we do, is to eat the food before we offer it to the children to make sure it's safe. We also stir the food to check for any visible signs of it being unsafe. But our hands are tied beyond that," he said.
Besides, doing more can land an over-enthusiastic educator in trouble.
"A few years ago, a principal in a nearby school found a rat in the midday meal supplied to his school. He sent it to a lab and complained about it to the authorities. He was not only suspended earlier than his retirement, but does not get pension money yet," said Garg.
A teacher for 22 years, and now the principal of an MCD school in RK Puram, told Firstpost that given the shortage of teachers it was difficult to manage.
"Each teacher teaches their students six subjects. In addition our school also teaches the kids computers. So each of us teach 7 subjects. We also serve the midday meal to students ourselves," the RK Puram school's principal said. "What all can we do?"