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

In a country like India with a huge percentage of population under the age of 18 and school-going, the mid-day meal scheme is estimated to benefit at least 12Crore children approximately. It is more than a government scheme here-providing employment to many women, where children of all castes and communities sit together for a meal thereby breaking all types of barriers and impediments of the society. It is also a relief to the poor parents who don't have to worry about their children's one meal at least and also helps to assure full attendance. Thus it has become a part and parcel of the society especially in the rural areas. The recent tragedy in the Saran District of Bihar which led to the death of 23 children has left the nation in consternation. The whole nation shed tears for the tiny lives lost. Many theories have come forward as to what cause the tragedy like poisoning, cavalier implementation of the program etc. However after further investigation the most plausible reason was found to be the poor storage facilities for fruits and vegetables which led to its degradation thereby rendering a poisoning effect to them. It is heart throbbing to see how a minor careless mistake led to such a gruesome tragedy. A similar tragedy occurred in Neyveli District of Tamil Nadu also where several children where admitted to hospital due to nausea and giddiness after having the mid-day meal. These incidents must serve as an eye-opener to the administrative authorities as well as the public. The need for a complete overhaul of the scheme is absolute necessary and the time for it is NOW more than ever.

To begin with parental committees should be formed in every school to overlook the working of the scheme including the quantity and quality of the food, nutritional standards required, periodical supervision of the storage facilities and infrastructure, hygienic conditions at the cooking surroundings etc. Also under the current scheme the cook-cum-helper woman is not recognized as a government employee and is only provided a nominal incentive for their 'voluntary services' rendered. Recognizing them as government employees with a fixed salary per month is sure to bolster their morale thereby leading to a more effective implementation of the program in its most quintessential form. As far as the nutritional standards are concerned there is a wide clamor around the nation that the current allowance of Rs.4/child at the primary level and Rs.4.65/child at the upper primary level is highly inadequate and needs immediate reforms. An increase in these allowances will help to ensure nutritional cereals, pulses etc to their salubrious diet.

The government should also come to par with the fact that this program is more than just a government scheme to the people and should take earnest and immediate reforms to make the program more effective. It has been conclusively seen that in districts where non governmental agencies have played a role the scheme has failed miserably and where the scheme is fully State-run it has been running successfully. Therefore the government should take control of the full implementation of the scheme beginning from direct procurement of the agricultural produce from markets at affordable prices, their transportation and storage to cooking and serving thereby demarcating these profit-oriented agencies from any intermediary role. The government should also appoint agencies like Society for Social Audits, Accountability and Transparency (SSAAT) to conduct regular social audits of each school. It is to be noted that mere appointing of the agencies is not enough but a threat free environment where they can present the findings and grievances from their reports, open discussions and debates on the subjects in the presence of parents, adequate measures for their redressal should also be ensured by the government. Steps to assure drinking water, toilets and other facilities in every school can also play a pivotal role.

The government has to take cognizance of the fact that any scheme is ultimately meant for the welfare of the people and their well-being. Tragedies like these are not only a blotch to their political image but also to the image of a nation as a whole in the global scenario. Public also has to clearly send an unambiguous message that incidents like these will not be tolerated at any cost. Let us hope that with the right mindset and a holistic view, this scheme will turn out to be a flagship program of our nation for everyone to be revered upon.

- Balasubramanyan.R.Menon