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Formed, midday meal cell kept in freezer

- Set up after Bihar school deaths, Raju-headed empowered committee has not met even once
HRD minister Pallam Raju

New Delhi, Jan. 6: If you’ve wondered why there’s no end to children falling ill after having midday meals in schools, here’s a clue: review panels set up after such incidents do not bother to meet.

After the deaths of over 20 children of a rural Bihar school last July, the HRD ministry had set up an empowered committee headed by minister M.M. Pallam Raju to assess the hygiene, safety and quality parameters of the midday meal scheme and review its monitoring mechanism.

The 31-member committee — comprising four education ministers, secretaries from 10 central ministries, social activists and experts in nutrition and hygiene — was to meet “at least once in three months”. However, it has not met even once since it was set up on August 22, 2013. Worse, there is no meeting scheduled this month.

“It is both unfortunate and surprising that the committee has not even met once. They should have convened at least one meeting by now,” said Shantha Sinha, a member of the committee and a former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

She said the panel would have to play a major role in evaluating the safety and hygiene of midday meals and a meeting should be convened at the earliest.

Public health expert T. Sundararaman said the setting up the committee appeared to be “mere tokenism” by the government.

Students being served the midday meal at a Ranchi school

“Whenever there is a major incident, the government wakes up and takes some cosmetic steps. It blissfully forgets to take follow-up action. This committee is such a step,” said Sundararaman, the executive director of the National Health Systems Resource Centre, a Delhi-based NGO working on public health.

Sources said the committee was set up after UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi expressed displeasure over the monitoring of the programme. She asked Raju to set up a high-level panel to study the quality and hygiene aspects of the food, storage facilities in schools and issues related to procurement of grains.

An HRD ministry official said the committee had not met because Raju had put in his papers in October first week to protest the creation of Telangana. Although his resignation was not accepted, he had refused to enter his chamber for a while but he cleared important files and attended most ministry events at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

If the ministry had wanted to, it could have held a meeting of the empowered committee, the official said.

Biraj Patnaik, a member of the committee and adviser to the office of the Supreme Court commissioner on food security, said the delay in convening a meeting could be interpreted as the Centre’s lack of seriousness about the midday meal scheme.

“Certainly, safety is a great concern. The committee should meet at the earliest. Otherwise, it might be interpreted that the government is not serious about the programme,” Patnaik said.

The ministry has issued fresh guidelines on the programme and a separate committee headed by the school education secretary has been meeting regularly, he said.

The midday meal is a flagship scheme of the government to provide cooked food to children on days a school is open. Nearly 11 crore children are fed the meals in 13 lakh government and aided schools at a cost of Rs 13,000 crore a year. Several studies have suggested that the meals have helped improve attendance.

Since the deaths in the Bihar school last year, the HRD ministry has been receiving several complaints from various states about children falling sick after having the meals.

Minister Raju said “one meeting” had been held on the issue. But sources said that was a consultative meeting held before the empowered committee was set up.

“After the committee was set up, it has not met at all. The minister had held a consultative meeting before the empowered committee was set up,” a senior official said.