States asked to exercise caution while implementing mid-day meal scheme

The Human Resource Development Ministry has sought a report from the Bihar government on Tuesday’s mid-day meal tragedy in Chapra in which 22 children died.

“It is a very sad incident and we are deeply pained at the loss of lives of children,” HRD Minister M.M. Pallam Raju told reporters here on Wednesday. He said it looked like a case of food contamination and asked the States to exercise caution while implementing the mid-day meal scheme. “It is an aberration. Although it is an unfortunate incident, it is not a recurring thing.” An FIR had been lodged against the school principal.

The Ministry is the nodal agency for implementing the programme. The Minister said investigation was on and during probe it would be ascertained if guidelines were followed.

While School Education secretary Rajarshi Bhattacharya spoke to the Chief Secretary on Wednesday morning, Additional Secretary in the Ministry Amarjit Singh, who was sent to collect first-hand report on the incident, is expected to return late on Wednesday.

According to Mr Raju, the food was prepared at the school and students were served dal, rice, sabzi and soya bean. “We have focused on the quality of the mid-day meal programme right from the beginning. Even when the gas prices went up, we ensured that the quality of the mid-day meal did not suffer.”

As per norms, he said, the food prepared had to be tested by two to three adults, including at least one teacher, before it was served. Reheating food was not allowed. The authorities are also required to ensure that ingredients used for cooking was free from adulteration and pest infestation. It should be used only after proper cleaning and washing.

It was the responsibility of the district administration and village heads to ensure that the scheme was properly implemented. The role of the school monitoring committees, the Minister said, was also crucial.

Reacting to the incident, Minister of State in the Ministry Shashi Tharoor tweeted: “Bihar’s midday meal tragedy is deeply shocking. Midday meals have been a major success: provided nutrition to the poor kids and kept them in schools.”

Jitin Prasada, also a Minister of State in the Ministry, said the “unfortunate” incident should not be politicised and the guilty should be punished.

The mid-day meal programme is one of the largest programmes in the world, serving hot, cooked food to over 11 crore children in more than 11 lakh schools across the country. An important component of the Sarva Sikshya Abhiyan programme, the Centre and the States share the cost of implementation in 75:25 ratio.

Mr. Raju said providing sheds for preparing food was vital for implementing the scheme and in the case of Bihar, 65,977 kitchen-cum-store were sanctioned for safe and hygienic cooking, of which 44,159 had been constructed. He rejected any possibility of serving packed food as proposed by a parliamentary standing committee. The Ministry was mandated to provide cooked food under law.

The Ministry’s experience with NGOs, particularly Akshaya Patra, engaged in serving mid-day meal was quite encouraging, the Minister said.

Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar condoled the deaths.

The central executive committee of the Students’ Federation of India expressed grief over the deaths. “Preliminary investigations suggest the callousness of the administration and the government authorities in running a scheme, which was conceived to increase the enrolment in the primary schools of the country. Reports point to the presence of insecticides in the food, which is completely unacceptable,” it said.