In the sort of desi irony we’ve come to appreciate, the case of the missing midday meals at the primary school in a village in the district of Lalitpur seemed just ripe, post the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, which had several BJP Chief Ministers claiming midday meal victories across their respective states.
Launched in 1995 by the Central Government, the Midday Meal Scheme was meant to meet the twin goals of boosting primary education and improving nutrition levels among children. The idea was that if the government were to provide free lunch to the students of state-run schools, parents would be more willing to send their children to school, as opposed to making them sit at home or work for money. Particularly for those who have a tough time making ends meet this was a double blessing, for now their children would also be ensured of a healthy, nutritious meal every day. However, it wasn’t long before this scheme, like so many other state initiatives, let the public down. We discovered one such failure in Mehrauni block of the Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh.
The residents of Largan village of this area told us that no midday meal has been cooked in the village primary school for the last three days, and this was not expected to change in the near future either. On asking one of the primary school students, Preeti, we came to know that the reason behind this was the cooking gas in the school kitchen running out. And no one seems to care enough to get it refilled.
Among the many distressed villagers we spoke with, one Shiv Shankar told us, “We only came to know of this when we asked the children and they told us that their school had not been serving them lunch for over three days.” To make matters worse, the school teachers and staff seem unaffected by this turn of events, focussing instead on whom to pin the blame on.
The implementation of the Midday Meal Scheme has been overwrought with issues right from the start. Best used as a tool by political parties to further their interests; bureaucratic apathy and corruption continue to plague this programme. Another student of the Largan primary school, Kranti, made us aware of the students’ misery. “When the officers come on their rounds to inspect the school, the teachers instruct us to say that we’ve been getting tasty food and everything in school is of high quality. And once the inspection officers are gone, they even threaten to hit us. All, that the teachers are concerned with, is getting a report saying that we are getting nourishing food and our studies are on point.”
The CAG report ending 2015, which surveyed 630 schools (out of over 16 lakh government schools) in UP threw up some dismal findings, particularly a blatant disregard of the scheme’s guidelines, such as the lack of 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, another instance of the disregard.
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 Mid-day Meal Authority and the state government. No wonder then that cooks are missing, and gas cylinders are not being refilled.
This is echoed by one of the school teachers, Shobha as well, “The reason for all this is that neither do we have supplies and provisions nor do we have cooking gas. On Monday, we had to manage by giving the students a banana each instead of lunch!”
As the school staff threatens the children into silence while struggling to make ends meet, the lack of concern of local officials is shocking, to say the least. The village pradhan, Radha Rani, had no clue as to why no midday meals were being served in the only primary school of her own village. All I know is that we aspire to serve the same food here as that which is served in schools across the country. If the gas is over, the school staff should arrange something in the time being. And if they cannot manage on their own, they should come to us – we will do whatever we can.” As far as the officer-in charge is concerned, our reporter has been trying to contact him for the last few days but he is still unreachable.
Vidya, a determined mother, provides the only ray of hope in this bleak picture. “We are going to complain, and keep on complaining till our kids get the food they deserve, the kind the government has promised!”
Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.
Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 12:20 PM