This week, 23 children lost their lives after having a mid-day meal served at a school in Bihar’s Saran district. Preliminary reports suggest that the school lacked a storage facility for foodgrain which led to contamination and this horrific tragedy. Among other causes, a poison theory has also been floated. Whatever reason is conclusively established, it is a reminder that the world’s largest intervention against hunger still remains a deplorable tale of apathy, indifference and a failure of proper implementation. In the same week, even in better performing Tamil Nadu, 170 schoolgirls in Neyveli district were admitted to a general hospital on complaints of nausea and giddiness after eating a mid-day meal.
A crucial welfare scheme such as the mid-day meal that reaches out to more than 12 crore children every day cannot run without the strong commitment of implementation officials and bureaucracy. It also needs a strong, public accountability system. Ultimately, parents should be trained to monitor the quality, infrastructure for supply-cum-storage, and nutritional standards of the food grain being served, as well as being provided a platform where they can hold the implementing agency accountable.
In March 2013, at the behest of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, a pilot social audit of the meal scheme was done by the Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency (SSAAT) of the Andhra Pradesh government’s Rural Development Department — in 40 schools in the State’s Khammam and Chittoor districts.
SSAAT is an independent society that has conducted social audits of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) in 22 districts of Andhra Pradesh since 2006. Social audit is a tool for public vigilance and for generating awareness and ensuring transparency and accountability in government welfare schemes. To achieve this, it has trained more than one lakh rural youth as village social auditors. The training includes methods to obtain documents by using Right to Information (RTI), explanations of government orders and other nuances of welfare schemes, cross-verifying government records such as muster rolls, measurement books, etc.
For the mid-day meal scheme audit, SSAAT trained parents who were already on school management committees, which are mandated under the Right to Education Act, 2009. The SASMCs (social auditors in school management committees) verified the quality of rice and food served to children, inspected the cooking area, the adequacy of cooking cost per child and the appointment of a cook-cum-helper (CCH)and other facilities provided in the school.
In almost all schools, the quantity and quality of rice, pulses and other food items on the menu, and facilities were found far from adequate and the desired nutritional standards. These observations and findings are similar to previous surveys done on mid-day meal scheme implementation in other parts of the country.
By participating in a social audit, parents directly questioned the system and suggested ways for better implementation of this much celebrated intervention against hunger. For 15 days, over 240 SASMCs went door to door and from school to school, reaching out to more than 2,000 parents and 40 CCHs to ensure 4,657 students had better mid-day meals.
Their findings were consolidated in a report that was read out at a public hearing or people’s open forum that was attended by senior mid-day meal scheme officials from the State and Centre, district education officers, principals, teachers, parents and the media. In the public hearing, parents were vocal about basic issues like the poor quality of rice, pulses, vegetables and inadequate quantities of eggs being served, a lack of potable drinking water and clean toilet facilities in the school. They appreciated that they were directly presenting their views and grievances to the representatives of the implementing agencies.
Despite their concerns, they did not fail to take note of its benefits and positive aspects. They did not need to worry any more about providing at least one meal for their children and their regular attendance in school. Women who are employed as cooks are from the local community and know the children and parents personally. This familiarity is a source of relief for parents and is an employment opportunity for the women.
In the public hearing, the women appointed as cooks also voiced their grievances about low salaries and untimely payments, and issues of expensive cylinders (Chittoor district). They asserted that the cooking cost of Rs.4.00 per child (at the primary level) and Rs.4.65 per child (at the upper primary level) provided by the government was very inadequate. Here, it is interesting to note that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s report on State Finances for Andhra Pradesh (2011-12), pointed out that the government was able to spend only Rs.673 crore against an allocation of Rs.1,112 crore for providing mid-day meals to children, which translates into a mere 61 per cent absorption and usage of funds. The impact of this underspending was evident in the social audit findings, which showed that budget allocation and expenditure directly impact the quality of the implementation of the scheme at grass-roots level.
After the public hearing in Chittoor district, the Central government made the decision to increase the honorarium of the CCH from Rs.1,000 to Rs.1,500 per month and the cooking cost from Rs.4.00 to Rs.4.25 per child (primary level) and Rs.4.65 to Rs.5.00 (upper primary level). The aim of the scheme is to fulfil multiple objectives while ensuring adequate calories and nutrition to pre-primary and primary school students. From breaking caste barriers — as all children sit and eat together — to providing employment to women, the mid-day meal scheme achieves much more than just being a school lunch programme. There is no formula for successful implementation either — it has worked well in places where it is wholly administered by the State, and has been a disaster where it is being implemented in partnerships with non-governmental organisations. So, the government must encourage social audits in partnership with the beneficiaries, facilitated by agencies that have the expertise in training community in monitoring.
With ordinances such as the “Right to Food” being discussed in Parliament and the cost of its implementation to the exchequer, it becomes important to strengthen monitoring institutions at grass-roots level. The intended beneficiaries are encouraged to demand transparency and accountability from those who are responsible for delivering these benefits. This will be possible only if the government guarantees four rights to the people who engage in a social audit exercise — provide them access to information, ensure that they can engage in verification, provide a platform to voice their findings and grievances and ensure that they can do this entire exercise in a threat-free environment.
(Akansha Yadav is State programme coordinator, and Kavita Srinivasan is programme coordinator for SSAAT and team leader for the pilot social audit of the mid-day meal scheme in Andhra Pradesh;Sowmya Kidambi is director, SSAAT.)