Why midday meals are mishaps waiting to happen

As our reports from ground, as part of a ANSA-SAR-Governance Now project on rural reporting, had found, there is too little money, and even little effort to keep the midday meal scheme afloat. The tragic truth is, the incident in Chapra, Bihar, in which over 20 children have died may not be a one-off incident

GN Bureau | July 17, 2013


Schoolchildren being treated at a hospital after they fell ill following midday meal at a village in Chapra district of Bihar on Tuesday.
Schoolchildren being treated at a hospital after they fell ill following midday meal at a village in Chapra district of Bihar on Tuesday.

While the politicians fight the political fight over the deaths in the Bihar midday meals tragedy – the state’s education minister, PK Sahi, on Wednesday morning told news channels that it is “not a case of food being contaminated; it is a clear case of poison in the food”, while once-ally-now-opposition BJP has been quick to slam the Nitish Kumar administration for the tragedy – there is something drastically wrong in the whole idea of midday meal as they are served today.

The idea as such is a novel one, and welcome, but the way it is implemented leaves a lot to be desired. As our reporters Pankaj Kumar and Puja Bhattacharjee found out during their six-month stay in Nalanda district of Bihar and Salboni block of West Midnapore district in West Bengal, respectively, the money allocated under the government’s much-touted integrated child development services (ICDS) scheme is barely adequate to buy even half the quantity of ration prescribed in the government circulars.

As a worker in Noorsarai block told Governance Now while we were chasing the story, and the shock that comes free with it: “In the name of breakfast, only bhunja is given to the children. The ground reality is, some 55 paise per child per day cannot buy anything more.”

What we had observed then – with the money just not enough, workers and their helpers (sahayika) at these centres compromise on both quality and quantity – stands true in the present case in Chhapra. Someone, somewhere did something grossly wrong in the midst of administrative oversight. And it’s the poor children who have to pay the price. At times, with their lives.

Over to the ground report from Noorsarai, Nalanda, Bihar:

Nalanda: loads on anganwadi menu, no money to buy foodstuff

By Pankaj Kumar

Something is grossly wrong in the way someone is cooking the menu and rate-list for anganwadi centres in Nalanda district.

While the idea is to provide nutritious meals to young children and nursing mothers at these centres, as part of the government’s integrated child development services (ICDS), the money allocated under the project is barely adequate to buy even half the quantity of ration prescribed in the government circulars.

Governance Now’s visit to anganwadi centres of Sonchari village in Parwalpur block and Chandasi village in Noorsarai block revealed the gross mismatch between the plans and the reality on ground.

The anganwadi centre in Sonchari has 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 bigger 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 is given to the children. The ground reality is, some 55 paise per child per day cannot buy anything more,” a sevika (worker) of Noorsarai block said.

ALSO READ: If schools show the future, it’s bleak in Salboni

The rate allocated for different food items is best left on the paper, so meagre they are in reality, it emerged from several anganwadi centres of Nalanda. For instance, the centres have been asked to buy 18.275 kg seasonal vegetables at the rate of Rs 8 per kg, 4.48 kg gram pulse and 22.945 kg pulses (other kind) are to be bought at Rs 40 per kg.

The rate list prescribes edible oil to be bought at Rs 80 per kg and allocates Rs 5 for spices per day. Similarly, groundnut has been allocated Rs 50 per kg. But the staff said these prescribed rates were the rates fixed five to ten years ago.

The result: workers and their helpers (sahayika) at these centres compromise on both quality and quantity.

Antiquated rates promoting corruption?

"Can you buy pulses of any kind at Rs 50 a kg anywhere in the country, or seasonal vegetables for Rs 8 per kg?" a child development project officer remarked on conditions of anonymity.

A worker from Noorsarai block said, "Anganwadi centres are functioning on ground but faulty proposal breeds corruption at the very initial level. We can’t give what we are asked for, simply because our budget doesn't allow it.”

Of the 40 children who come for preschool training at the anganwadi centre of Sonchari, 28 suffer from “normal malnutrition” and the remaining 12 of “extreme malnutrition”, though the distinction remains restricted to official paperwork, as multiple visits confirmed. In reality, fewer students visit the centre, and even when the optimum numbers are present they are shortchanged on quantity of “nutrition” offered.

Quality compromised for pregnant women, new mothers

For another facility, take-home ration (THR) for pregnant women and mother of newborns, quality becomes the victim as rules require quantity has to be mentioned. For THR, the amount prescribed for rice is 166 kg at the rate of Rs 15 per kg, while the government circular stipulates 83 kg pulses are to be bought at Rs 40 a kg — both grossly insufficient, according to anganwadi workers.

Similarly, the government has prescribed to buy 12.84 kg jaggery at Rs 32 per kg and 4.575 kg edible oil at Rs 80 per kg. The centres are also bound by rules to 4.48 kg grams at Rs 27 a kg.

For spices, Rs 85 is allocated to buy ration of 17 days, while Rs 500 is meant to buy 25 days’ quota of fuel, amounting to Rs 20 per day — both hardly a third of the amount required, according to the anganwadi staff.

"All these amounts allocated are laughably low in comparison to the market rates. So we have no option but to compromise on quality," a worker from Noorsarai block said.

Calling the rates prescribed “a joke by themselves”, an assistant from the same block said, "Grams are available for Rs 35 per kg, jaggery for Rs 40 per kg, while groundnut comes for Rs 72 a kg. How are we supposed to buy them for Rs 27, Rs 32 and Rs 50 (respectively)?”

Sabina Ahmed, the child development project officer of Parwalpur block, said each centre is allotted Rs 10,975 per month, admitting that the amount is “much less than what is required”.

District programme officer (DPO) Shobha Kesri avoided a reply when Governance Now asked her the same question.

While a new technology-enabled methodology called ‘Drishti’ has certainly gone a fair distance in making operations of anganwadi centres more effective in Nalanda, with better inspection and coordination on ground, officials on conditions averred that quantity and quality of food offered is always a challenge. So while the aim of the integrated child development scheme is to improve nutritional and health status of children below six years, and to lay the foundation for their proper psychological, physical and social development, flawed provisions are seen as not only putting up a hurdle but also encouraging corruption.

‘Too much work, too little pay’

According to the staff, another problem is the abject salaries they receive. An anganwadi sahaika (or assistant), who cooks food at the centre, is paid a monthly remuneration of Rs 1,500, while a sevika (worker) gets Rs 3,000 for bringing children to the centre, imparting them preschool training and taking care of their health.

The worker also has additional responsibilities such as being part of any survey. "We are burdened with work but our salary is too little. We are expected to be dutiful and honest but no one cares for our salary,” rued Nikku Devi, a sevika in Sonchari village.

Not willing to be named, several anganwadi workers and assistants said this low pay-grade also breeds corruption in the otherwise plausible and laudable scheme.

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