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Mid day meal in West Bengal goes under the scanner

Much before the unfortunate incident in Bihar took place, that claimed the lives of 23 children after consuming the mid day meal at their school, WB govt had asked 6 institutions to review the MDM program

Rajat Roy  |  Kolkata 

Much before the tragic incident took place in school that claimed 23 children's lives after consuming the in school, the the government had asked six institutions to review the MDM program's progress in the state. These are Calcutta University, Jadapur University, Visva Bharati University, Amartya Sen's Pratichi Trust, Nutrition Monitoring Board under Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Anuradha Talwar's Jan Sanskriti Kendra.

Of them, Jadavpur, Calcutta and Visva Bharati universities and Pratichi Trust have been entrusted with four districts each. Nutrition Monitoring Board is doing the review in one district that is North Dinajpur. People, who are involved in the monitoring of Mid-Day Meal program in West Bengal, feel that the tragic incident in is an aberration, where preliminary reports suggest of contamination of pesticide or chemical fertilizer with the food grains or cooking oil of mid-day meal, and the entire program should not be blamed for that.

According to Pratichi Trust Coordinator Kumar Rana, the tragic incident of has made it clear that time has come to evolve a better method of testing the cooked food before serving it to the students. Mere instruction to the teachers to test the food won't do. Dr.Ashok Sarkar, a program director of a Delhi based research institute, has seen for himself that wherever the Self Help Group (SHG) women are involved in managing the MDM program (mostly cooking and serving), it works well. In West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh he had visited those schools and found them getting good response from the students.

Incidentally, the preliminary reports suggest the SHG worker who cooked the food for the Bihar school had her one child fall victim to the tragic incident along with other 22 students. Kumar Rana points out that while there occasional case of neglect in MDM program in the state (in Purulia district, there was an incident when school children fell ill after eating MDM food), but in comparison to the Bihar incident these are negligible.

Researcher Manabesh Sarkar is directly involved in the Pratichi Trust's survey work of MDM program. He observes that though the spread of the program has reached more than 97%of rural schools, the urban schools were lacking in implementing the program and by 2009 only 31% of urban schools were brought under the MDM program. But, in the last three years, with the proactive role played by the state education department and the education secretary, the situation has improved a lot. They have already completed field survey in the four districts (Kolkata, Murshidabad, Malda and Jalpaiguri) and will be submitting the report to the government within next September. As per government directive, the other institutes are also expected to submit their report by that time.

However, from the experience of continuous monitoring of MDM program in West Bengal, these people have come to realize that while the spread of M-D-M has been quite encouraging, by2010 97% of rural schools have been brought under this, only 31% of urban schools have been covered. But in the last three years with the proactive role played by the state government, more and more urban schools (80%) are now joining this program. After the government took them into confidence, the teachers' associations have come forward and taken initiative in implementing the program in urban schools.

But, the quality of the food offered in M-D-M has left much to desire. According to rules set by union government, allocation of food grains (e.g. rice) is fixed at 100 gm. per student at Primary School level (From Class I-Class V) and 150 gm. per student at Upper Primary level (Class VI-VII). Besides that, the government also allocates Rs.3.33 per student a day at primary level and Rs.4.65 per student at upper primary level for additional expenditure like cooking oil, fuel cost and vegetables etc. According to the education department, the government would give this fund on the basis of 85%attendance in the school. According to researchers involved in the monitoring of the program, the school managements make do with this fund to pay the Self Help Group (SHG) workers for cooking and other related works. But, because of this paucity of fund, most of the school depends on soybeans as protein supplement, and many of them offer Khichury (Rice and pulses cooked together) at least twice a week to their students. According to Manabesh Sarkar, many of these schools have been sarcastically named by the local people as "Khichuri school".

First Published: Sat, July 20 2013. 17:53 IST