The tragedy that struck a school in Bihar in which 22 children were killed and 25 are in a serious condition is a pointer to a national programme that has gone sour. A thorough investigation alone will reveal how the food served as midday meal contained pesticides. A possibility of sabotage to tar the image of the government cannot be ruled out. Political parties have already started blaming one another for the tragedy that was bound to happen. There have been umpteen instances in which lizards, frogs and insects were found in the food served in schools. Lack of hygiene and quality in the food served has, alas, become a common characteristic of the programme.
There is no doubt that midday meals, introduced first in Tamil Nadu by chief minister M G Ramachandran, and accepted as a national programme in 2005, at the behest of the apex court, have dramatically improved attendance in schools. For many poor children, it was the only wholesome meal they received. In many places, the parents played a significant role in making the programme a success. They would often take over the job of cooking and serving the food. It also instilled greater camaraderie among students, teachers and the local community. But wherever the programme was left entirely to the school authorities to manage, it did not succeed.
Government schools are perennially short of staff. Due to lack of discipline and other reasons, even those on the rolls do not attend duty. The government is also to blame as the services of teachers are utilised for tasks as varied as enumerating the population and conducting elections from panchayats to Parliament. The funds allocated for midday meals are insufficient to meet the cost of supplying food of the stipulated quantity and quality. There is no proper monitoring system. Allowance has to be made also for the fact that there is corruption at various levels. Unless the government tones up the programme and punishes the corrupt, such tragedies cannot be averted.