Monitors but no checks in midday meal chain

Just a few days back, the Bihar Human Resource Development department was gloating over having extended the mid-day meal scheme to 591 more schools across Bihar. Two days after the worst tragedy to have hit what is India's flagship education scheme and the world's largest school nutrition programme, the department finds itself at a loss for words.

While the Centre Thursday decided to constitute a monitoring committee to look into the quality of food supplied for mid-day meals, a central effort can only be as successful as the existing mid-day meal monitoring committee, which meets just twice a year and warns the states if there are any shortcomings.

It is entirely left to the school management committee, school principals and block education officers to "control" the scheme. There are regular complaints of collusion among the three implementation layers. Villagers of Dandaman, where the tragedy happened, say that they have no control over the school management committee in which the secretary, often an influential villager, holds away and stifles dissent regarding any lapse in distribution of school uniform, textbooks and scholarship.

There is no system to ensure the quality of rice, pulses, oil and vegetables being bought by school principals, though there are regular complaints regarding the quality of rice served. Things are "set right" in school records and officers sitting in Patna don't ask questions.

That much-talked-about provision of the principal tasting the mid-day meal before it is served to students can't be a foolproof yardstick of quality. In case of the Gandaman primary school, principal Mina Devi apparently tasted the rice but not the soyabean that allegedly had pesticides. The cook, who is also ill and lost three of her own children, complained that the oil used for cooking seemed to be bad but was reportedly snubbed. The HRD Department has often talked about monitoring the mid-day meal scheme at district and block levels. But the volume of the scheme, covering around 12 crore children across the country, is too large for it to enforce this.

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