Midday tragedy

Bihar horror must focus attention on why this powerful scheme is so patchily implemented across India

Even as news broke of children succumbing to the toxins in their school midday meal in Chhapra district, Bihar, political parties snatched it for their own ends. The facts of the case have been barely comprehended, parents and teachers are in shock, but the BJP was quick to blame the Nitish Kumar government for negligence a government they were part of until last month. The JD(U) went one worse, with the state's education minister hinting at a political conspiracy.

Instead of giving in to their worst instincts, Bihar's political representatives must step back, find out why the midday meal scheme is floundering in the state. In fact, no matter what the cause turns out to be, this tragedy should prompt reflection on its implementation. Why, despite the large budgetary allocations and near-unanimous acknowledgement of its effectiveness as a social intervention, is the midday meal experience so variable across India?

Tamil Nadu, under M.G. Ramachandran, pioneered the midday meal, and then it was expanded and taken up as a national scheme in 1995. In 2001, the Supreme Court directed all state governments to introduce midday meals in primary schools. The scheme brings together several social objectives increasing enrolment and keeping children in school, social mixing between castes, employment for women as cooks and organisers and most importantly, easing chronic hunger and malnutrition. Tamil Nadu's interventions in food security have been successful because of close monitoring, quality safeguards and community involvement. But states like MP and Bihar have not been able to replicate those practices. Experiments, like outsourcing these meals to NGOs, have not shown any improvements either. Parental vigilance is rarely exercised, and the food is cooked in unhygienic conditions, to the extent that a parliamentary panel suggested moving to packaged food. The aim of providing a cooked, nutritious meal is not the only one that is let down in the process children are still often segregated by caste. There is already a midday meal monitoring committee to alert states of shortcomings, and dedicated district officials to oversee its implementation, but the outcomes remain imperfect. The Centre has now announced that it will strengthen that committee, to monitor qualitative aspects like hygiene and tighten the supply chain. The effectiveness of the midday meal depends crucially on the will of the administration, and the extent to which local communities can control its details.

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