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Bihar's midday lunches: You may find cockroaches, lizards, rats, even snakes!

By Satyavrat Mishra
Last updated on: August 30, 2016 10:33 IST
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On Monday, August 29, a court in Saran, Bihar, sentenced the headmistress of the school where 23 children died after eating a mid-day meal to 17 years in prison.
Three years after that tragedy, discovers Satyavrat Mishra, the state government has failed to learn its lessons.

A child eats her midday meal in Gandaman, Bihar

Three years after the tragedy that killed 23 students, mid-day meals routinely fail to meet basic hygiene and nutrition standards.

As many as 23 children died after eating contaminated food at the Gandaman-Dharmasati Primary School in the Saran district of the state. The victims came from all communities, defying the typical narrative of caste-based rights violations of the poor in Bihar.

Investigations, carried out by the state and central governments separately, showed gross violation of normative standards, widespread corruption and the lack of oversight.

Three years later, a quick reality check shows that the state machinery has failed to learn its lessons.

There are still no foolproof systems for buying and storing food material, those responsible for buying foodstuff have no knowledge of quality parameters and possibilities of contamination still loom large.

On their part, officials at the education department in Vikas Bhawan, the Bihar government secretariat, insist several steps have been initiated to ensure safety while preparing food and have made it mandatory for teachers to taste the food before it is served to children.

A new menu has been prepared and the schools have been ordered to follow it without fail. The government plans to include pulao and kheer in the menu. New utensils are being bought by schools and the government has set up a helpline number for complaints.

Prince Sahani is a Class 5 student in the Government Primary School, Indrapuri in Patna. Wearing a button-less sky-blue shirt and worn out trousers, a plastic strap in place of a belt, rubber slippers, carrying ragged books and notebooks, Sahani aspires to be a doctor and promises to study hard for that.

Son of a roadside food-seller, Prince is one of the few students who still attend the school. Most of his classmates have shifted to another school in the area after the mid-day meal scheme was stopped here in 2014. The NGO, which was responsible for delivering the meal, was blacklisted by the government.

A teacher, who does not want to be named, says this was done after a slew of complaints about the quality of food. "Every other day kids used to find a dead lizard or rat in the food. Whenever we tried to protest, the contractors used to threaten us. Finally, two years ago, we lodged a complaint with the department. The contractor was blacklisted, but our supply was also stopped."

It's not an isolated incident in the state. Almost every month, cases of cockroaches, lizards or rats in the meal served to students are reported in local newspapers.

Last month, as many as 54 children fell sick and were hospitalised after eating the mid-day meal contaminated by a dead lizard at a government school in the Aurangabad district in the state.

In May, 10 children fell sick in the Muzaffarpur district after consuming stale food. The people there blame it on the lack of oversight when the food is prepared. A couple of years ago, a snake was found in the food at a school in the Sitamarhi district.

State government officers acknowledge the problem but say that in some cases the food is deliberately contaminated to settle political scores.

Those recruited for cooking the food are randomly selected and not trained. The cooks are appointed by the village headman and the process is completely opaque.

Cooks are paid an honorarium of Rs 2,000 per month, which was raised last year in the run-up to the state assembly election, but is still inadequate to attract people trained in food hygiene to the job.

Data from the Union human resources development ministry reveal that 49 complaints related to the quality of food in the mid-day meal scheme were registered by the state government between 2013 and 2015, which makes it second only to Uttar Pradesh in the country.

However, the state government took no action in any of the cases. Only three samples from Bihar were tested at the certified laboratories, despite the rules clearly mandating such a procedure.

For the current financial year, the government has allocated Rs 2,170 crore (Rs 21.7 billion) for the scheme (this includes the central government's share). However, it is not adequate for feeding more than 20 million school-going children in the state. Not according to the menu prescribed by the government, at least.

There is a menu clearly printed on the wall of the Government Middle School, Shekhpura. However, it is rarely followed. Deepak Kumar, student of Class 4, says, "We either get rice with potato and soya-bean curry or khichdi. I don't like khichdi as it has only rice and water in it."

Baby Kumari, a girl sitting next to him, says she likes whatever is served. Ask her why, and all she does is smile.

Teachers and experts say price is the major concern. Rules prescribe a platter of 450 calorie and 20 grams of protein at mere Rs 3.84 per child per meal. The allocation goes up to almost Rs 6 for adolescents.

"Everything has become costlier today, how can we get green vegetables and pulses at the rate fixed almost half a decade ago? We manage it with great difficulty. Sometimes we have to divert funds," says a teacher in a village in the Patna district.

"When pulses are priced at Rs 100 to Rs 150 per kg, edible oil at Rs 100 to Rs 120 per litre and green vegetables at Rs 40 to Rs 50 per kg, providing quality meal at the prescribed cost to a child is impossible. Rather than giving microwave ovens to the legislators, the state government should focus on this scheme," says an analyst.

The scheme is further compromised by the rampant corruption in the education machinery of the state government. Time and again, several surveys have indicated the problem, yet very little has been done to curb it.

"It's nothing new. We all know this, but what can we do? It's a well known fact in the education department that local officials, headmen and teachers make a lot of money by falsifying the attendance register. They pocket the money meant for scholarships, cycles and even the mid-day meal. They siphon off foodgrain and money meant for the mid-day meals," says a member of the state council of ministers on the condition of anonymity.

Last year, the anti-corruption branch of the state police nabbed Birendra Narayan, the district programme officer and in-charge for mid-day meals in the Katihar district, from his palatial home in Patna.

The police officials accused him of owning as many as 23 plots of land, including a market complex in Purnea, and several flats in and outside Bihar. He insisted that he had been falsely implicated in a politically-motivated conspiracy.

State government officers say corruption will be rooted out once Aadhaar numbers are seeded. "Aadhaar will soon become mandatory for school enrolment in the state. Teachers have been asked to help people in this regard. From next year onward, scholarships will be credited into the accounts directly. It will help us in curbing this menace," says a deputy secretary in the education department.

"We have initiated several programmes to ensure quality food to students," says Bihar Chief Secretary Anjani Kumar Singh. "First of all, we have decided to shut down all the schools running in temporary or dilapidated structures and have attached them to schools with pucca structure. It has ensured that the food is cooked in a safe environment."

The biggest challenge, according to Singh, the top bureaucrat in the state, is the low cost base and the huge scale of the scheme. "Even when you organise a get-together of 100 people, you have to face problems. When 20 million children have to be fed at 70,000 locations in the state, problems are bound to come up. We are trying our level best to overcome the problems."

Till then, students in the state will have to make do with sub-standard food.

IMAGE: A child eats her midday meal in Gandaman, Bihar. Photograph: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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