Thursday, August 22, 2013

Studied, played and got buried: mid-day meal poisoning in Bihar and beyond

One of Kaleidoscope's maternal uncle is a school teacher. He teaches in a primary school where mostly first generation learners come. He is a brilliant multitasker.
He is an
census worker
disaster manager
and finally a teacher.

After the Bihar incident where 23 children died after consuming a midday meal that was found to have been laced with a deadly organophosphorus insecticide, Kaleidoscope calls him up and he reluctantly but sadly says that this is something quite obvious. There is no infrastructure for teaching as there is no infrastructure for cooking and feeding the children. Kaleidoscope finds that first, it was policy makers' eagerness to decrease the dropout rates without looking at the quality of education service being offered, and now, the policy runs itself into more complicated situations in which a teacher becomes cook, students see schools as a community dining place, local political elites find another seep in the long pipe of India's so called pro poor policy now injected by more than 13,000 Crore and guardians find a place where they can keep their child safely (?) and do their regular works. 

The case of Bihar - the case of India:

Kaleidoscope finds a repetition of the earlier customs of food offering. Earlier kings had tasters who used to taste & test the food bring offered to the king. Bihar government with severe criticism suspends the headmistress, and directs teachers to taste the cooked food before serving them to children. These superficial measures indicate the lack of seriousness and political will to take a corrective measure so that incidents like these can be avoided. The particular school in that day was run by the headmistress only as the only other teacher was on leave, which means on that particular day students were waiting for their meal and not for any lesson. Perhaps this is the picture of our primary education system. In severely understaffed schools, teachers are expected to maintain accounts for the midday meal schemes, procure and store the raw materials for cooking, help in cooking, work in the Census, perform election duty, prepare electoral list, take part in disaster-relief (legitimised by RTE Act, section 27) and finally teach and create good human resources for our country. People who cook midday meal works for Rs. 1000/- per month that too for 10 months with a hope that someday their welfare state will make them permanent and they will be paid in pay-scale. There is barely any clean and shaded kitchen a separate place for dining or quality meal for the students as there is no job security and fair wage for the workers and even these schools do not have first aid kit available.

... and beyond: 

Kaleidoscope in many of his fieldworks found midday meal schemes running in schools popularly known as "khichuri school" (khichuri or khichri means the meal being offered there). In one particular incident the school was adjascent to a Panchayat office in Purba Medinipur. That day the children were very happy as in addition to the rice and dal of their regular meal cauliflower curry was prepared that too because we (on behalf of  GoWB) were supposed to visit the Panchayat office. 
Children at the Purba Medinipur in 2009

Moments of joy before joining for the midday meal at Purba Medinipur 2009
There is hardly any nutritious meals being offered. There are often instances of lizard, cockroach infested meals being offered. Centralised system of midday meal such as those run by International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Nandi foundation and corporates like Vadanta is equally depressing. They offer meals that rot on the way, there is virtually no regulations on what they offer in the meals, and there is reported gap between the amount of raw materials they said to use and number of meals they provide. 

Kaleidoscope like many finds that "participation" or participatory approach is most frequently projected as one win-win solution to all of India's problems. Perhaps, this is trend of all neo-liberal policies. Whatever you (state) cannot handle, hand it over to locals. As a result Panchayats are extremely overburdened. In this particular case of schooling system where governance is now largely handed over the local people, "the school management committee" under RTE act are not performing as it is expected to perform. As other sectors like decentralised irrigation management is failing too.

Sadly, when we look at one case, we often loose to focus on the other related issues as well. Kaleidoscope was mapping Dharmasati Gandaman Primary School's case to answer "why so many children died?" (22 have survived) The quick answer is like this.

1. The school lacked first aid kit
2. Primary health care centre is 7 km away with poor connections
3. Nearest civil hospital is 50 km away
4. Patna medical college is 75 km away.

At this point there is no simple solution to world's largest school feeding programme. There should not be severely underpaid workers, become cook teachers, local players looking for a seepage in the now entitle 13000 crore funds and poisoned foods for the children. No doubt the scheme has played a great role in checking dropouts, and provided valuable aid to daily diet but installation of educational system is still far away, meanwhile the incidents like Bihar indicates increasing lacunae of the scheme in action. We will have wait for the concrete measures as told by our PM.

Lastly in the voice of Kaleidoscope's maternal uncle "earlier we used to get empty classrooms... now at least they are filled. At least we have made their parents understand the importance of preliminary education just like a balanced diet."  

1 comment:

  1. Surprisingly media overlooks and not follows the news...