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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

providing quality food to India's poor ~ is mid-day meal scheme a failure or mis-administered ?

India really is a land of paradoxes… there are kids in metropolis getting dropped in posh foreign cars, eat very rich food, carry swanky mobiles and have i-phones and ipads as playthings…. …… then there are children who do not get to eat one quality meal per day…. have you ever visited the cooking room of a school in your city / village or that of an ordinary hotel ?  Can you imagine the place depicted by these photographs….


Sad that 23 children died ~ fault, eating midday meals at school… and a  Bihar court has issued an arrest warrant against Meena Devi, the headmistress of the Chhapra school.  Ms Devi has been absconding since the deaths of the children and was suspended from her post after the Bihar police filed an FIR against her last week. According to district officials probing the incident, Meena Devi had forced the cook to use contaminated oil despite the latter’s complaint that it had a pungent smell. Sure, the guilty needs to be punished and one cannot be tolerant where so many little children have lost their lives………. But, is She really to blame and are things anyway different elsewhere………..

Reports suggest that forensic tests on the food served to the children confirm that the food was poisoned, and also contained the alarming revelation that it contained five times the poison levels found in insecticides and pesticides. There are now lingering doubts on whether the young victims in Chapra, Bihar, really poisoned as the state government claims? The State education minister PK Shahi was slammed for his comments in a media conference, when he insisted that the children had been deliberately poisoned and hinted at a political conspiracy. The Forensic Science Laboratory report found Monocrotophos, an organophosphorus compound in the samples of oil from the container, food remains on the platter and mixture of rice with vegetables on Aluminium tasla (utensil), Additional Director General of Police (HQ) Ravinder Kumar told reporters making the report public. In his media statement Shahi put the blame on the principal of the school and her husband, hinting that they had something to do with the incident.  The fact that the Principal and her family members went into hiding immediately was being held against them ~ but is that not a natural reaction of timid people who have no political backing….. If deliberate poisoning can indeed be proven, it will undoubtedly give the Nitish Kumar government a much needed lease of credibility. The tragic incident has dealt a massive blow to the Chief Minister’s ‘good governance’ claims and given his political opponents some lethal ammunition against him.

Perhaps some heads would roll and then the sordid affairs continue as it has been…. a report in The Times of India stated that as much as Rs 463 cr that had been allocated to the state government for the running of the midday meal scheme in Bihar had been returned to the centre as it had not been utilised. In the wake of the Bihar incident, reports of equally shocking reports from across the country started flooding national media. On Wednesday, 31 students of a government school in Dhule, Maharashtra were admitted to a hospital after they ate food served as part of the midday meal scheme in their school. The students, from Class 5 to 10, had reportedly developed gastroenteritis after eating the food.

In someways it is no shocker – schools across States, when things are administered by the Govt and are to be free schemes – there are middle men at every stage and eventually the quality takes a hit….! In most places, whatever is made available to poor is what would never be eaten by any of those luckier affluent ones… there are voices that the scheme is bad, and should be stopped at once…………………….. if the administration is not good that would never make the noble intentions bad. The noon meal provision is seen as  punishment posting for some of its administrators.  Often it gets allocated to teachers who are notorious absentees.
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Down South on the banks of river Thamirabarani lies the hamlet Cheranmahadevi, which in someways  changed the way children go to school in our Great land…………………. It is stated that  decades ago, the then CM of Tamilnadu Thiru K. Kamaraj saw a boy near the town of Cheranmahadevi herding livestock he asked him, “What are you doing with these cows? Why didn’t you go to school?” The child immediately retorted, “If I go to school, will you give me food to eat? I can learn only if I eat." Unknowingly, this young boy had touched on a critical problem facing the nation’s children: they cannot learn on a hungry stomach. His simple response sparked a series of events which gave rise to the Mid-day Meal Scheme as it is known today. Started in the 1960s in Tamil Nadu, the program was set up to reduce hunger and encourage universal primary education.

The key objectives of the programme  was to protect children from classroom hunger, increasing school enrollment and attendance, improved socialization among children, addressing malnutrition, and social empowerment through provision of employment to women. The scheme introduced statewide by the then Chief Minister K. Kamaraj in the 1960s was later expanded by the M. G. Ramachandran government in 1982. It has been adopted by most Indian states after a landmark direction by the Supreme Court of India on November 28, 2001.
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Now whatever it be, don’t blame the system for all the evils…. Every time there is a scandal about an institution, we perform post-mortems; we feel the organisation has breathed its last.  We see mistakes as lethal and scandals as fatal and yet a week later, despite the loss of lives we move on as if nothing has happened. None at the top suffer and after sometime things move on as thought it never occurred.  Let not the fright of Chhapra children add to this list.  There is media frenzy which will either taper off as time passes or shift attention to something else more popular.

A shining example of how to run the scheme is live at Bangalore – a real story of “Akshaya Patra”, set up by the ISKCON. The photos at the start of the post are that of this institution. Their leader once saw a group of children struggling over scraps of food near a garbage can. Groups like ISKCON, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Sikh langars, the Swaminarayan are masters of cooking and food as hospitality. Welfare schemes need ideas of care, seva, beyond the pinched ideas of bureaucratic charity.  While some get too much of mileage of little charity, the works of some remain not so publicized and appreciated – however those service Organisation continue serving the society without expectation of any recompense just as rain serves the land.  

The Akshaya Patra Foundation runs school lunch programs; the organization distributes freshly cooked, healthy meals daily to 1.3 million underprivileged children in 9,000 government schools through 20 locations in 9 states across India.  For many of the children, this is their only complete meal for the day. It gives them an incentive to come to school and stay in school and provides them with the necessary nutrients — becoming the food for education. In ten years, the foundation has grown to become one of the largest and most innovative school lunch programs in the world. The mission of the organization is to reach out to 5 million children by 2020, and holds to the belief that "no child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.” Tucked away on busy West of Chord Road, the Akshaya Patra kitchen on the Iskcon temple campus is a place where hygiene is non-negotiable. Anyone entering the automated kitchen has to wear gloves and caps, which are not reused. Meals are churned out like clockwork in this kitchen, which was set up 13 years ago, ever since the midday meal scheme began in the year 2000.  

If you are to see this, you would eat here so happily. Akshaya Patra kitchens are technology-driven, which ensures the entire cooking process is untouched by human hand. These centralized, automated kitchens can cook close to 6,000 kg of rice, 4.5-5 tonne of vegetables and 6,000 litres of sambar, in under six hours. Akshaya Patra uses customized industrial steam generators and specifically designed vegetable cutting machines. The vehicles that transport cooked food to schools are heat insulated and dust-free special purpose vehicles. Such are the measures taken to ensure cleanliness in this three-tier kitchen, that rice is tilted out of the silo through a computer controlled flow valve. Once the cooking is done and food dispatched to schools for the day, the vessels are steam washed and read for the next day. Little wonder the scheme was a Harvard Business School case study. This Quality has ISO 22000 certification for 11 Akshaya Patra kitchens….

There are some more in the fray providing quality food on their own… in the dusty village of Thuraiyur nearer Trichy there is - Sri Agathiar Sanmaarga Charitable Trust that  has been serving the poor and downtrodden in Thuraiyur, Trichy, Tamilnadu, India since 1989. The center, known as ''Omkarakudil", has charity as its basis of spirituality. Reportedly around 2000 poor people are fed daily here and the Sangam extends its help to many villages around 50 km radius serving quality food packets distributed in their own lorries……..

Never blame the system ~ the intentions are noble – the administration of the scheme may not be !

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
23rd July 2013.


1 comment:


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