People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXVII

No. 31

August 04 , 2013

 

Malnutrition for Auction

 

A R Sindhu

 

THE death of 27 children, after eating their Mid-day Meal on July 16, 2013 in Dharmsati Primary School in Mashrakh block in Saran district in Bihar, has created shock and anguish in  society. A little away from the usual stories on ‘the prime ministerial candidate’, ‘need for FDI’  and ‘the royal delivery’, issues like hunger, malnutrition, lack of basic infrastructure in the elementary education system with a focus on the Mid-day Meal Scheme has appeared daily in the news  media since then. But again unfortunately the basic questions are missing in the debates and discussions.

 

After the tragedy in Bihar, last week witnessed several reports of incidents of children becoming sick and getting hospitalised after consuming the mid-day meal in schools. Incidents were reported from Gaya, Bihar, Neyveli, Tamilnadu, from Odisha, Rajasthan, etc. The channels are showing the poor quality of food, unhygienic conditions where the mid-day meal is cooked etc,

 

The World Bank report says that India has 42 percent of the world’s underweight children. According to the studies by National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB), National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), 58.6 percent of the children of the age group 6-9 years and 77.9 percent of the children of the age group 10-13 are underweight. If we add the mild under nutrition to underweight, this will be a shocking 94.1 percent and 96.4 percent respectively. 30.1 percent of all children of 10-13 age group are severely underweight. The school dropout rate is as high as 60 percent. (Source:  Guidelines for MDMS2006,GOI).

 

With all its limitations, according to each and every study conducted, the  National Programme of Mid-Day Meals in Schools( MDMS), world’s largest scheme providing lunch to nearly 12 crore children in 12 lakh schools, had helped India to improve the two issues of its school enrolment and nutritional level among children.

 

In any debate about the MDMS, some basic questions need to be addressed. In a country, where the long pending demand and a promise since independence for a budget allocation of 6 percent of GDP to education, has even disappeared from the debates, nobody seems to be interested in discussing about the poor allocations for the MDMS considering the nature of its service and its coverage.

 

LACK OF BASIC

AMENITIES

Nearly 20 percent of the elementary schools do not have drinking water. More than 20 percent schools do not have kitchen sheds or place to cook. Very few states have made provisions for cooking gas. In a situation where the schools themselves are lacking basic facilities – teachers, class rooms, text books etc., the MDMS become the last priority of the department.

 

Nearly 25 lakh workers (as per figures given in parliament in 2011-12) mostly women from the most backward social and economic background, are cooking meals and feeding the children. In many states as many as 40 percent of them are widows. The appointment of socially backward sections was a move to break the caste and class barriers prevailing in the country and promote social equality.

 

The mid-day meal workers have to work for around 5-6 hours in the preparation, actual cooking and distribution of food and cleaning the vessels and the premises etc. The workers have to collect firewood and fetch water for cooking and cleaning. In most of the schools, they are asked to clean the school and premises as well. In many places they are made to work in the schools of teachers and panchayat members who are the ‘appointing authorities’ by default.

 

The mid-day meal workers who are helping to shape the country’s future, are not even recognised as workers, but are considered ‘volunteers’. They are not paid minimum wages. They do not get any social security benefits. They get neither compensation nor medical aid in case of accidents, which are not rare. The ministry of HRD opposed the 45th Indian Labour Conference recommendations for recognising them as workers, for paying them minimum wages and social security.

 

Till recently, the mid-day meal workers, who are mostly from backward castes and classes, widows and deserted illiterate women were paid Rs100- 600 per month, which is now rupees 1000 per month. In many places it is shared between two. The remuneration is paid only for ten months in a year. The rest two months in a year they are left with nothing.  Nowhere in the country, the mid-day meal workers get their remuneration every month. Everywhere the remuneration is due for 6-8 months and when the arrears are paid, they have to pay bribe at different levels. Now many state governments have stipulated that only those whose children are studying in the school must be kept as a cook and thus hundreds of workers who were serving the government for a pittance all these years are being retrenched. This is a clear violation of all norms of social justice and labour laws.

 

An evaluation conducted by the Programme Valuation Organisation of the Planning Commission found that since the wages paid to the mid-day meal workers are so low as 40-50 paise per child, there is a shortage of cooks in schools. The average number of cooks per school in the country is 0.40.

 

GOVERNMENT

WITHDRAWAL

The World Bank recipe of privatisation in the name of “community participation” was introduced as a remedy to curtail the demand for recognition of the cooking job and payment of salaries to the mid-day meal workers. The all in one solution of ‘self help groups’ has been brought in the scheme.

 

In several states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana etc, the cooking job of MDMS and ICDS is given to self help groups. The self help groups, consisting of the poorest of poor women, are compelled to make the initial investment for purchasing vessels etc. The average remuneration received by a member of a self help group employed in cooking the meals is as low as Rs 250 per month. Here, in the name of ‘community participation’ and ‘empowerment of women’, the government is getting free labour and these poor women fight with each other for a bigger share of the pittance given by the government. 

 

Nowhere in the country is there any proposal to involve the women’s self help groups, so that they will get ‘empowered’, in any job in which proper salary and other benefits are available! There should be a very deliberate move to question these very neo-liberal concepts of exploitation in the name of ‘community participation’ and ‘empowerment of women’.

 

Moreover, now, the teachers, the village committees and the mid-day meal workers are asked to collect from the village or ‘community’ the necessary money and food items like vegetables, eggs etc, to provide to the children. Even in Kerala, the UDF government had cut down the financial allocation to the scheme and the teachers and cooks are directed to collect resources from the locality to provide the children milk and eggs once or twice a week.

 

PREVALENCE OF

CORRUPTION

There is large scale corruption involved at all levels of the scheme. Recently scams involving politicians, bureaucrats and big contactors or fake NGOs came up in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, etc involving hundreds of crores of rupees. At the local level, it is the local contractors, bureaucrats, panchayat members, school management and principals who run the show. There is manipulation of accounts of number of children, the food and fuel supplied etc. The blame for the poor quality is always pushed on the mid-day meal worker.

 

Last one or two years had shown a large number of study reports and official data on the alarming levels of malnutrition. Other than the government studies and data, most of these studies which were done with much fanfare, were done by different corporate NGOs or agencies appointed by big corporate houses, involved in the nutrition business. Many of these agencies came forward with ‘innovative suggestions’ to have micronutrients, ready to eat fortified food and also for more involvement of private sector and NGOs in the State run schemes to ‘fill the gaps’!

 

It is very obvious that the corporate houses and corporate NGOs like ISKCON’s Akshayapatra Foundation, Naandi Foundation etc, in full connivance with the corporate houses,  are pushing further for privatisation of the existing schemes pointing out the loopholes and projecting ‘innovative models’. It is a matter for investigation about the manifold increase in the assets and profit levels of some of these NGOs.

 

NGOs like ISKCON’s  Akshayapatra and Naandi are getting full amount from the government to run the mid-day meal scheme. They also receive corporate funding for CSR. Taking money from the government, Akshayapatra is claiming to run the world’s largest NGO run scheme feeding one million children every day. They collect donations for that! They themselves are claiming to have raised Ł300,000 in a single event in UK, in which many celebrities from India participated. So it is becoming the world’s highest profit making industry.

 

Reports on high levels of anemia were followed by Pepsi Co.’s ‘charity’ proposal to market soft drink to combat anemia for Rs Five or even less for small sachets!

So malnutrition, anemia, are all in the pipeline for auction.

 

A wide network of cheap labour working in various schemes, with no expense, is being handed over to the corporates in the name of public private partnership (PPP). It is reported that in Kerala and in Rajasthan, the ASHAs working in NRHM are made to sell sanitary napkins for the well known MNC Proctor and Gamble.

 

The alternative projected to the ‘unhygienic’ food in the ‘dirty’ schools is the food provided in the packets or tiffin carriers from the big centralised kitchens run by the NGOs and corporates. Apart from endangering the livelihood of thousands of mid-day meal workers, the centralised kitchens run by these corporate and corporate NGOs sabotage the very purpose of the scheme, to provide freshly cooked locally available food to the poor malnourished children. According to experts, there is no nutritional value for the food prepared in centralised kitchens many hours before serving. Even in Delhi, reports say that the food from 90 percent of the centralised kitchens proved to have poor quality and reported to be stale on most of the occasions.

 

STRENGTHEN

THE SCHEMES

We must ensure that the culprits responsible for the tragedy in Bihar must be punished. An independent and transparent enquiry and exemplary punishment must be ensured.

 

The central government had decided to appoint a high level monitoring committee to review the mid-day meal scheme implementation. It is proposed to involve representatives of NGOs etc. It has been a long pending demand of the trade unions to involve the representatives of the trade unions of those who actually implement the schemes at the grass root level, and the representatives of the organisations of the beneficiaries in such committees for the effective implementation of the scheme. There is a monitoring committee which is formed in January 2013, which has representatives of various state governments, ministries etc. It has no representative of the mid-day meal workers but has one of the Akshaya Patra Foundation!

 

The sacrifice of these innocent lives should not go in vain. We must ensure that it is never repeated anywhere. The All India Co ordination Committee of Mid-Day Meal Workers, (AICCMDMW) of the CITU has decided to take up a campaign to strengthen the MDM Scheme to all children upto twelfth standard, along with the mass organisations of beneficiaries such as the AIKS, AIDWA, AIAWU and the SFI. The long pending demand of the organisations for adequate financial allocation, proper infrastructure and effective implementation of the schemes is to be made the common demand of the people.