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Bihar Mid-Day meal tragedy signals revamping of the nutrition scheme

National Program of Nutritional Support to Primary Education was launched by government of India in the year 1995. The primary objective of this scheme was to provide nutritional meal to children in government schools and government aided schools. This scheme was renamed as Mid-Day Meal in the year 2001 and the mode of the implementation was left to the discretion of the states. The cost of Mid-day meal scheme is shared between Central government and state government and at present, 75% of the scheme is funded by Central government.

Mid-day meal scheme since its inception has been successful in reducing school drop-out rates and increased the school attendance rates in government schools across the country. The hot cooked nutritious meals which is served to children belonging to poor families under this scheme, has helped in pursuing the parents of these children to send their children to school for their better future. The mid-day meal scheme has contributed significantly in improving the overall literacy- level in the country. Mid-day meal scheme has been successful in improving the nutritional standards among the underprivileged children but still, it has a long way to go.

But the recent tragic death of 27 children after eating their mid day meal in Chhapra district, Bihar, in the month of July has exposed serious discrepancies and loop holes in the scheme. The presence of highly poisonous pesticide moncrotophos in the food served to these children according to the forensic report, questions the quality of the food served to them. This is not the first time that such incidents have occurred, but various scams have been reported earlier. Corrupt practices like fake enrolments are being done in some schools to embezzle money. Quality of food served to these children is compromised at their cost by authorities responsible for the implementation of the scheme just to earn few extra bucks. While the scheme mandates to provide for a hot cooked meal to ensure specific energy content for children studying in primary classes, still large numbers of children are suffering from mal-nutrition and hunger in the country. Several cases of irregularities in the supply of food grains to schools have been reported from time to time which highlights the issue of accountability of officials responsible for the mismanagement of the scheme.

A majority of the school feeding programs across the world especially in economically poorer countries incorporate nutritional education as part of the delivery mechanism. Countless studies have shown how the lunch program contributed to Japan's educational and economic productivity gains. But the Indian scheme from the outset failed to grasp the learning from overseas experience. Ours is a number oriented meal program not a nutrition program. The administrators have been focusing more on volumes and not value when it comes to generating outcomes from a well-intentioned feeding program.

The Bihar incident is a tragic eye opener to the policy-makers in more than one sense. Revamping of the mid day meal scheme is the need of the hour, so that it tackles the systematic errors prevailing in the current scheme. The momentum on nutrition needs to be built on all fronts. Therefore, government and authorities should ensure efficient delivery system that can cater for minimum calorific values; protein and micro-nutrient content, and adhere to safety standards on bacterial content and other contaminants. Government should open more testing and monitoring centres across the country so as to keep a check on the quality of food being served to the children. Government should recruit well qualified staffs, trained cooks and nutritionists to ensure the quality of food served to the children in all the schools coming under mid-day meal scheme. Government should appoint well qualified teaching staffs in these schools so that the dual purpose of providing quality food along with proper education can be served. Government should encourage participation of mothers of these children in the program and making them instant guardians of what is being put on their child's plate.

All said and done, I'm of the view that the mid-day meal scheme has the ability to reach the children, but now it's time to evolve the program into something that provides the type of quality that promotes real social equality. However, it is equally imperative that for translating the benevolent concept of Mid Day Meal into reality, effective implementation has to be ensured.

- Shreya Anurakti