Two decades have passed since the mid-day meal became a part of the daily routine in government schools nationwide. In this long passage of time, procedures have stabilised but accidents continue to occur. Funds from the Centre flow smoothly though procurement of food items faces hurdles of different kinds.
The latest in grotesque mid-meal stories concerns milk. Government norms entitle every child to receive 150 ml of milk as part of the mid-day meal. However, a video revealed recently how one litre of milk was mixed in a bucketful of water so that it would suffice for the more than 80 children present that day in a school in rural Uttar Pradesh (U.P.). This was somewhat similar to the one reported from U.P. a couple of months ago. In the earlier incident, a video showed plain chapatis being served with salt.
The two videos made it to the national media; they also proved useful for the officers who supervise the mid-day meal scheme since they also depend on unauthorised videographers to learn about the reality in schools. Each such revelation leads to the same reflexive official statement: punish the guilty, locate the video-maker and deal with him/her.
A week ago, I happened to pass through the area of rural Bihar where a terrible mid-day meal horror had occurred six years ago. Everybody seemed to remember it, but no one knew where matters stood now. In that incident, 23 children died after eating a meal. Inquiry revealed that the oil used for cooking the meal was stored in a can that originally carried a pesticide. It was put to use without even being washed properly. After receiving global coverage in its immediate aftermath, the episode slipped out of the media, and even the regional press moved on. A former student who keeps me in touch with developments in Bihar told me that the criminal case against the headmistress has not concluded. Policies about cooking and distribution of food have not changed either.
In the latest mid-meal story narrated above, authorities in U.P. have reportedly done the customary needful, i.e. they have fired the apparent culprit who is a para-teacher. The officiating headmaster will surely face an inquiry.
Making it part of curriculum
Ever since it was made compulsory under a Supreme Court order, the mid-day meal scheme has received considerable appreciation. It is the world’s biggest scheme of its kind, hence we are expected to take its occasionally reported hiccups in our stride.
Stories that appear in the media can be classified into three broad categories. First, there are cases of bad food, leading to food poisoning. The second kind of reports are about cheating. Then there is the third category, pertaining to caste bias and discrimination. Food is central to the caste system, so it is not surprising that in many schools, children are made to sit separately according to their caste status. Several parents ask their children to carry their own food as the school cook belongs to a lower caste. Apparently, little effort has gone into making the mid-day meal an aspect of the curriculum. There is so much to be learnt — food prices, quantities, cooking method, and so on. Data sorting is a part of the mathematics curriculum, and the meal provides ample data even if the quality of the food served isn’t always great. As an occasion, collective eating could also serve as a time to relax and reflect. None of this happens. If you visit a school at meal time, you can sense how everyone is feeling hassled. The mid-day meal is a chore, to be carried out under difficult circumstances and constraints. The cook is miserably paid; the food items that qualify for selection are the cheapest available; and post-meal cleaning arouses no Gandhian memories in anyone’s mind.
The bottom line is that the scheme is perceived as charity, not a civic responsibility. With the growing shift of the better-off parents to private schools, government schools are viewed as places for the poor. Therefore, the mid-day meal is associated — both in public perception and state policies — with poverty. Like other schemes that serve the poor, this scheme is also covered by norms that insist on the cheapest. The menu, the money, the cook’s remuneration, the infrastructure — they all show the value India places upon its children. Nor is the scheme conceived as a pedagogic resource. Otherwise, it would have been implemented at private schools as well. No one can argue that health and nutrition pose no problem in private schools.
As one might expect, there are regional variations. While the northern States strictly depend on the Central grant, the southern States augment it significantly. That is why horror stories from the south are less frequent than those from the north. Nowhere in the country, however, can one see a comfortable absorption of the mid-day meal in the school’s daily life in a curricular sense. Even in educationally advanced States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, you don’t hear stories of teachers asking children to keep a weekly record of what they eat or using this record to assess the weekly intake of different nutrients. In some regions, you see the daily menu painted on the school wall. Writing letters to authorities and documenting the gap between the menu painted on the wall and what is actually served might be a great activity.
Hopes and fears
UNICEF’s executive director Henrietta Fore recently wrote an open letter to the world’s children. It marked 30 years since the promulgation of children’s rights by global consensus. The letter listed eight reasons why its writer is worried and also eight reasons why she is hopeful. Reading the two lists, you feel that there is a lot more to worry about than to feel hopeful about. The letter starts by acknowledging that poverty, inequality and discrimination still deny millions of children their rights. Food and education are among them. Then there are larger issues like the impact of conflicts, climate change, new technologies and their impact on the integrity of democratic procedures. As you go down the list of reasons causing worry, the text gets grimmer. The concluding part of the letter is about children’s loss of trust in institutions. From fake news to divisive policy choices, the UNICEF chief’s global letter evokes a wide range of local thoughts. Children receiving a litre of milk mixed in a bucketful of water will surely understand the concept of cheating better than that of fair play. Who is going to convince them that honesty is a good policy?
In the meantime, the clamour for moral education has graduated to a new level of sophistication. Apps and short videos are the latest in a long series of material devices that claim to inject high values and tips for good conduct in young minds. A whole new industry, with due backing from public institutions, is now handling the supply side of public demand for moral training during the formative years of life. UNICEF must be aware that some of its sister agencies in the UN system are actively involved in the emerging neuroscience of ethics. We cannot charge fake news alone for waylaying the young.
Krishna Kumar is a former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)