In January 2003, the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi invited expressions of interest from non-government organisations and caterers to provide cooked food to schools. The civic body’s schools covered the largest proportion of children enrolled in government primary schools and the MCD was looking for ways and means to implement what is commonly known as the Mid-day Meal scheme.
Ten years after it was officially implemented, the scheme now covers 18.75 lakh primary and upper primary students across 3,038 schools in Delhi . Of these 1,175 schools are run or aided by the Directorate of Education and 1,801 are under the trifurcated municipal corporations of North, South and East Delhi. Forty-six centralised kitchens supply food to these schools.
But a scheme that started off as a path-breaking exercise by the Delhi Government to increase enrolment and attendance and to address malnutrition is now in the spotlight for failing to meet the minimum protein and calorific requirements. This is despite the National Family Health Survey-III indicating that the Capital has 26 per cent underweight children especially among those from the slum areas.
“The very purpose of the establishment of the National Programme for Nutritional Support for Primary Education or Mid-day Meal (MDM) has been forgotten. Instead of being the nutritional support, as its original name suggests, MDM has become a programme of doling out stale food in a country where over 47 per cent of children are malnourished,” says National Steering-cum-Monitoring Committee on Mid-day Meal member Ashok Rao.
Recently, in response to Right to Information applications filed for ascertaining the results on the quality of food being served to Delhi students it has been revealed that in the year 2012-13, only 50 of the 288 samples lifted from schools had passed. This meant that 83 per cent of the samples had failed to meet the protein and calorific values prescribed by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development.
The change in methodology three years ago is the reason for the discrepancies, says the Directorate of Education (Director) Amit Singla. “Till 2010, samples were tested on the ‘dry method’ in which the food is dried out before it is tested for the protein and calorific content. Then we decided it should be ‘as is served’ basis which is in the wet form,” he explains. “For instance, if the food has 5 per cent protein when it is dry, it will be diluted to 2.5 per cent when soaked in water. So we thought it will be better to work out standards for the wet method of testing.”
The HRD Ministry has been asked to recommend an appropriate methodology, to what Mr. Singla refers to as an attempt to “raise the bar further” in terms of improving the quality of food.
The civic bodies on their part maintain that the food is not adulterated and the problem of deficiency of calorie and protein content is not limited to the civic bodies alone but is being faced across the country. “The government has been trying to improve the menu,” says North Delhi Municipal Corporation Commissioner P. K. Gupta.
With unhygienic mid-day meal being notorious for having sent several school-going children to hospital on account of food poisoning, on ground there appears to be a certain sense of distrust with the scheme, at least among parents. “My mother told me not to eat the food that is served in school,” says 10-year-old Bharti Kumari in a municipal school in South Delhi. “Every time I eat it, I fall ill.”
Divyanjali Mishra (10) brings her own food after she found stones in rice and Priyanshi Kumari (9) carries her lunch from home after she was taken ill for two months.
“I did not come to school all of January and February. Now I bring food from home,” she says.
The action taken on food poisoning incidents is total eyewash, claims BJP MLA from Trilokpuri Sunil Kumar. It was in his constituency in 2009 that close to 120 girl students were admitted in hospital after consuming the mid-day meal. “I have raised this issue several times in the Assembly but the Education Department does not take it seriously,” he says. “This is not a frivolous matter, lakhs and lakhs of children consume this food every day.”