What's on that midday meal plate?

Government should immediately start off by increasing money allocated to anganwadis to buy food commodities for midday meals. Otherwise tragedies like Chapra would recur – only the casualty numbers would be different

pankaj

Pankaj Kumar | July 17, 2013



The harsh reality of what actually goes into the plates of lakhs of children across the country in the name of midday meals have come out with a full, ghastly force in Chapra, in Bihar’s Saran district. While the odd death or two almost regularly in faraway villages and towns hardly ever make it to the leading news packet, this incident, with the death toll now reaching 21, and many more stated to be critical, has the potential to make it to the front pages and top news bracket on TV and stay there for a few days.

And in turn make the Centre, and different state governments sit up and take note.

ALSO READ: Why midday meals are mishaps waiting to happen

I was fortunate – and at the same time unfortunate, given the gravity of the issue – to see the truth behind midday meal scheme first hand when I went to Nalanda as part of a six-month project of Governance Now and ANSA-SAR (read the e-book on Media for Accountability Project here).

I had gone to Sonchari village in Parwalpur block with the local child development project officer (CDPO), Sabina Ahmad, to learn more on how the integrated child development services (ICDS) scheme is run. Sabina, known for her pluck and good work in the district and thereby given additional charge of another block, was frank enough to admit to me their vulnerability. “We do our best but the truth is that what we are asked to do can never be done practically. Either quantity has to be compromised or quality has to be compromised – this scheme (midday meal, along with providing nutritious meals to pregnant women and nursing mothers) can work only then,” she had told me.

The full impact of her words hit me when I dug in. This is what I had written for the magazine: “The anganwadi centre in Sonchari had 40 malnutrition-afflicted children to feed and, like the others, gets a grand total of Rs 572 to buy and prepare for breakfast for 25 days for all of them. Break it down, and it amounts to a grand sum of Rs 22.80 each day to feed 40 mouths. And what’s on the menu? Biscuits, seasonal fruits and ‘bhunja’. An unreasonably tall order, as the staff put it.

“So in the name of breakfast, only bhunja was given to the children. The ground reality was, some 55 paise per child per day cannot buy anything more,” a sevika (worker) of Noorsarai block said.”

The problem, I was told, is the impossibly, laughably, irrationally and abysmally meagre amounts allocated to buy the ration for these meals. Even without going to the local market/mandi one could figure out that given these rates, either quantity or quality would have to be compromised, as Sabina had put it.
Some staff at these anganwadi centres admitted as much – that they are “compelled” to compromise, though they do not want to do it. “What else can we do?” one worker (none of them wanted top be identified) asked, helplessly.

I had tossed the same question to district programme officer Shobha Kesri, who preferred silence over a reply.

My take is simple: the planners and programmers of this scheme (and perhaps many other government schemes) have little idea about the ground realities. They have little Knowledge of the local markets, or prices of commodities. Reading about things like bad quality of oil being used to cook the food gives a sense of déjà vu: had I not heard about the same things back in Nalanda.

The government, and its plethora of officers, needs to wake up, smell the coffee, hit the streets and fields immediately. And they can surely start off with a relook on money allocated to anganwadis to buy the food commodities on their menu. Otherwise this unfortunately game of compromising with quality and quantity would have no end.

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