The Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission has asked the state government to divest Self Help Groups (SHGs) of the responsibility of supplying Mid Day Meals to schools. In its directive based on a case of food poisoning in Jabalpur district in 2011 which caused the death of a girl, the MPHRC has asked the government to ensure that food is cooked within the school, without the involvement of SHGs.

MPHRC’s Registrar (Law) H. K. Dubey told The Hindu that though the government had to reply by July 17, no compliance report has yet been received. “The only way to ensure safe food is by using products from sealed containers cooked in the school kitchen, supervised by the teachers committee... Teachers can easily manage this as they take only two to three classes a day.”

Reacting to the order, Anil Sadgopal, member of the presidium of the All India Forum for the Right To Education, said that it is undesirable for teachers to organise cooking. “The SHGs represent the community and they are the best bet for safe food. The MPHRC is asking MP to go the Bihar way where the head teacher had to furnish daily accounts by email or SMS with details of how much masala, dal etcetera was used and how much was spent”, he told The Hindu.

He added that teachers are already overburdened with non teaching work like census, election duty and even disaster relief duties, under section 27 of the Right to Education Act. “The only foolproof way to ensure good food is a Common School System (CSS) wherein the children of the collector, SP, district education officer and all senior government functionaries study in the same schools as common children.”

Mr. Sadgopal was part of the three-member commission, headed by former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey, to plan the CSS in Bihar in 2006. Bihar is the only state to have set up such a commission. In its report in 2007, it laid out a nine-year plan to implement the system, which would retain private management of schools although they would function like public government schools. “If Nitish Kumar had kept his promise of implementing the CSS, this tragedy (of deaths due to food poisoning in Bihar) would not have happened.”

Mid Day Meals Deputy Commissioner Sudhir Khandekar said that currently, both SHGs and private NGOs are engaged in the scheme. “Cooks from SHGs prepare food in two-room kitchen sheds within the school. This is tested by teachers daily. In municipal corporations food is centrally prepared by big NGOs,” he said.