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Lessons left to learn from tragedy

The government claims to have learnt its lesson after last year’s Gandaman midday meal tragedy. The reality, this year, says different.

Not only do children continue to fall unwell after eating alleged contaminated food, several — 6,000 to be exact — are not even covered under the midday meal scheme.

It’s been a year since tragedy struck Saran’s Gandaman village, around 130km northwest of Patna. Twenty-three children died after eating at school. Forensic report into the meal later confirmed the presence of monocrotophos, an organophosphate insecticide toxic to birds and humans.

Senior officials responsible for the scheme, launched in Bihar in 1995, claimed last couple of years have been satisfactory. Reports from the ground, however, claim different. Apart from carelessness in the scheme’s implementation, several directives go ignored as well.

Kamlesh Jha, the deputy director of the midday meal scheme in the state, told The Telegraph on Wednesday: “There are 71,762 government schools in Bihar. In the past two years, the government’s performance in the midday meal scheme has been satisfactory as far as distribution of foodgrain and exposure is concerned. There are a few loopholes and the government is working on them. Till July 2012, around 19,000 schools were not covered under the midday meal programme. At present, the scheme has not reached around 6,000 schools. This year, the distribution of rice received a setback during the Lok Sabha elections.”

The number of schools where the scheme has not reached is, however, higher, The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General stated around 13 per cent government schools were running without a building — the scheme does not cover these institutions too.

Jha added: “The midday meal is not supplied to schools which have no buildings because of safety issues.”

Close to 9,063 schools come under this category which takes the number of schools not covered under the midday meal scheme to 15,063.

Strict watch on safety issues does not mean carelessness has been done away with. Children continue to fall unwell after their midday meals.

As recent as last Friday, 25 students at a school in Siwan district fell ill. A lizard was allegedly discovered in the food. Earlier, on July 5, as many as 54 students of a Sitamarhi middle school fell ill after a snake was found.

Another official responsible for the midday meal scheme said: “These incidents are the result of negligence. After the Gandaman incident, strict instructions were issued to the school principals, headmasters and teachers to personally inspect the food served to the children. Along with the vidyalaya shiksha samitis, the faculty members were also directed to oversee the preparation of the food. Some of the directives are yet to be implemented even after a year of the tragedy though. Those given the responsibility to be present while the food is prepared can face strict action.”

The vidyalaya shiksha samitis were formed in villages with government schools last year. Its members comprised people from the village.

Technology also failed to help officials tide over the teething problems. An announcement was made last year to provide Tablets to block resource persons for keeping tabs on the meal scheme.

The officials were required to inspect government schools under their blocks, click pictures on the gadgets and send it to the senior officers. It has not been much of a success.

“The plan did not work too well as majority of the block resource persons are not well acquainted with the gadget. However, inspections are being conducted at the schools and we are getting regular inputs from the block resource persons. Incidents of children falling ill after consuming contaminated midday meal have also come down. We are trying to provide the officials cellphones having Internet facility, which they can use properly,” Jha said.