Dead Mouse or Dead Ethics: Why is the UP Government Feeding Poisoned Food in the Garb of the Mid-Day Meal?

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Serving of eggs as part of the Mid-day Meal Scheme can help us tackle the challenge of malnutrition in India.

Over the last many days, the Uttar Pradesh government has been making headlines but for all the wrong reasons. Most of the headlines that have earned the state of UP a bad name in recent days are related to the mid-day meal scheme and its pathetic implementation within the state. Shocking cases have been reported in recent days from the Sonbhadra to the Mirzapur districts.

In a latest report, it has been found that children at a school in UP’s Mirzapur were served food as part of the mid-day meal scheme which had a dead rat inside it. By the time, it was found that the dead mouse was lying at the bottom of the container containing dal, many children had already consumed the dal and taken ill. The meal was meant for students between class 6 and class 8 and had been prepared by an NGO called Jan Kalyan Sanstha Committee that is based in Hapur, a town about 90 kilometres from Muzaffarnagar.  Nine children and a teacher fell ill immediately after consuming this contaminated food and had to be immediately hospitalised.

Last week too, another heart wrenching incident was reported from the state of Uttar Pradesh where in the Sonbhadra district an extreme case of carelessness and callousness was displayed by the cook at a particular school kitchen. As part of the mid-day meal scheme it is recommended by the Centre that the children be served a portion of milk to meet their nutrition needs but a video was released which showed a cook at a mid-day meal kitchen mixing one litre of milk with a bucket of water to feed some 81 students at a local school. In the video the cook is seen boiling water in a large aluminium container before adding milk from a one litre carton. She then stirs the vessel to make sure that the water and milk have mixed well. She is then seen serving the hungry children the heavily diluted milk.

This is not an end to the extremely disturbing practices that are prevalent in UP in the garb of the mid-day meal scheme. It was only in September this year that we saw how at a school in Mirzapur district, children were filmed sitting on the floor and eating salt with dry rotis.

It is ironic to look at the above incidences in the context of the Uttar Pradesh government’s website where it provides an elaborate description on the implementation of this scheme in the state and the grand menu that it is supposed to be serving as part of the mid-day meal scheme. The Mid-Day Meal Authority is the institution responsible for looking over the proper management and implementation of the mid-day meal scheme that is supposed to serve children at the state-run primary schools. 

It is supposed to include a complete diet comprising pulses, rice,rotis and vegetables. Milk and fruits are also to be served on certain days of the week according to the meal chart.

It is intended that these meals provide 450 calories to each child everyday.

 It is mandatory that it includes about 12 grams of protein and is served to every child at least 200 days in a year. The Uttar Pradesh government records suggest that it has provided mid-day meals in more than 1.5 lakh primary and middle schools throughout the state, as of December 2018. It is believed that the scheme has benefited more than 1 crore children.

Over the last three years, the government has received a record number of complaints as far as the mid-day meal scheme is concerned. It has received 52 complaints on corruption in the implementation of the mid-day scheme with the state of Uttar Pradesh recording the greatest number of complaints(14), followed by Bihar(7). 

The government’s own statistics suggest that over the last three years, 931 chilled have fallen ill due to their consumption of the food served as part of the mid-day meal scheme. It is to be noted that the overall responsibility of providing hygienic, nutritious food as part of the mid-day meal scheme lies with the state government and administrations of union territories. It is pathological that despite the large number of complaints, incidences such as the ones that have occurred in Uttar Pradesh over the last couple of months have not ceased to exist. We need an environment that holds authorities responsible and punishes all those who are found guilty. We need a system that reduces corruption, encourages efficiency and empowers those at the receiving end.

The Indian government may have issued a series of guidelines on the quality, safety and hygiene of mid-day meals in school-level kitchens across all the states and union territories of the country. These guidelines provide schools with strict instructions so that they are able to provide quality branded items for the preparation of the mid-day meals for their students. It is also recommended that the meal be tested by 2-3 adult members of the School Management Committee including one teacher before it is served to the kids. It is also suggested that the prepared food be examined and evaluated by accredited laboratories to ensure credibility and quality.It is a rather disturbing reality that despite so many recommendations and instructions, despite the grand agenda that the mid-day meal scheme seeks to achieve, its implementation continues to be neglected and taken for granted by callous and incompetent state authorities. 

No wonder, even after serving food contaminated by a dead mouse to hungry children at a state-run school, the authorities are still busy furnishing their own justifications for the same. The question really is, if the mid-day meal really is a priority or is it merely a compulsion of the state?

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