School feeding programs world across are considered a win-win situation because it is supposed to attract children from low income population to the schools facilitating the objective of universal literacy besides improving the health of these school going kids. No doubt it is a noble thought and its success, though may cast a huge economic burden on the national budget, can bring in qualitative transformation of the society at large. But the crucial question is whether such programs are efficiently managed or not? From time to time we do hear about many complaints regarding mishaps, some minor and others major, affecting the safety of the beneficiaries. Ever since the idea of school lunch program was mooted there was a debate whether the food should be made and served hot within the school premises or pre-prepared foods in sealed packs should be distributed and even to day this issue has not yet been settled. However the trend seems to be to equip all the schools with the necessary infrastructure to cook the foods in the schools themselves. Though many observers had pointed out the dangers and pitfalls inherent in a gigantic arrangement like this, government seems to have decided to encourage school cooking and massive funding is being proposed to set up or upgrade the infrastructure needed. It is against this background one has to read the latest report of the CAG, placed in the Parliament which makes a sad commentary on the efficiency and seriousness with which this program is managed at present. Read further below:
"The quality of food served in schools under the Mid Day Meal Scheme continues to remain poor across the country, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) said in a report tabled in parliament on Friday. The report raised many red flags such as over-reporting of enrolment figures, financial indiscipline, poor quality of means and inadequate meals. "Cases of cooking of poor quality meals in unhygienic conditions, inadequate and poor quality of infrastructure in terms of kitchen sheds and utensils were rampant across all states exposing children to health hazards," it said. Launched in August 1995 to boost education by increasing enrolment, retention and attendance simultaneously impacting on the nutrition levels of children, the Mid Day Meal Scheme was extended in 2008-09 to students of upper primary classes. The scheme is currently operational in 27 states and seven union territories. According to the report, the Food Corporation of India did not serve the best quality of rice in Uttar Pradesh schools. It said there were several complaints of poor quality meal cooked by Chandigarh Industrial and Tourism Development Corporation Limited which is engaged in cooking for schools in Chandigarh. According to the report, the prescribed nutrition to children was not provided in schools of at least nine states, including the national capital. In Delhi, samples of cooked food of the 37 service providers during the period 2010-14 were tested by the Sri Ram Institute of Industrial Research. "Out of the 2,102 samples, 1,876 (89 percent) failed to meet the prescribed nutrition standard," the report said. The report showed a consistent decline of enrolment of children in the Mid Day Meal Scheme from 14.69 crore in 2009-10 to 13.87 crore in 2013-14. Declining trends in enrolments during 2009-10 to 2103-14 were observed across the country in states such as Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Lakshadweep and Puducherry. The report also observed that the checks to ensure quality of meals and adequacy of nutritional value of food served to children remained only on paper. The inadequate monitoring of the scheme by the human resource ministry and the states was a major bottleneck in implementation. The funds earmarked for monitoring and evaluation had been grossly underutilized, the report cited."
Though there would be some slip ups in any program of this size, not doing enough to improve upon the existing practices cannot be condoned, especially when we are dealing with school kids who will be tomorrow's citizens. To realize that almost 90% of the samples tested by independent assessors failed the standards laid down for making the foods is indeed shocking. Added to this the enrolment of children to schools is showing a declining trend raising the critical question as to why this is happening at all? The blame game will go on for some time with no one willing to accept the responsibility as passing the buck is a favorite game in this country! Look at the Parliament and the abominable behavior of the law makers and even a kid can get disgusted because these so called representatives of the people have no time to consider matters affecting the citizens and their children, wasting their time on personal bickerings and narrow political agenda. Probably switching back to packed foods with standard and safe standards may be the only answer. With food technology organizations like CFTRI , DFRL and NIFTEM, all public funded agencies, why not the government demand a time bound development mission to come up with a dozen RTE food products with diverse tastes and long adequate shelf stability that cannot be diverted to open markets? This will ensure adequate safeguards for quality, quantity, safety and accountability.