What it is for?

Greater Kashmir

MIDDAY MEAL SCHEME

Why force students to eat midday meals, to eat substandard meals, to inculcate a begging attitude in them through it? Asks Muhammad Maroof Shah.

Our Department of Education is beset with thousand and one ailments. By all standards it is a huge failure. In a system where so many students fail to qualify exams that require average intelligence, where very few students are in love with their studies, where mediocrity is generally the rule, where a person who will fail to qualify for a peon post elsewhere can easily become a teacher, where most teachers are teachers by compulsion rather than choice, where students are condemned to memorize and cramming pays, where creativity is mostly confined to debates and the like, where libraries are mostly defunct and students not used to read books, Where teaching skill is so degraded as to be available at less than Rs50/day as RTs – less than half of the amount any illiterate casual labourer can earn and where the absolutely ludicrous, inhuman ruling regarding nontransferability of RTs could be conceived and implemented – a ruling which defies all those laws that necessitate transfers after two years, drastically affect motivation to teach diligently in teachers, reduce teachers virtually to prisoners and bonded labourers – too much time in even heaven is boring as Iqbal says not to speak of remote schools where a few students and one or two human faces are encountered day in and day out ( I wonder how these rulings get endorsed by the government and implementing authorities of the department and how silently teaching community is condemned to accept such absurdity which breeds disinterest in students as well –, where all are supposed to read a few given subjects without paying any heed for a vocational talent that some are naturally endowed with and for whom studies prove counterproductive – I am reminded of Coomaraswamy’s essay “Bugbear of Literacy” – , where spirituality and moral values fail to be inculcated leading to a host of problems such as addictions, delinquency and where sports receive so little attention – should not cricket or football be taught at school level and we could have produced ten thousand Tendulkers or Zaedans. There is no library culture in students here. We could convert the room for meals to library cum reading room. And make students to read. Let us make one period a library period if not daily on alternative days. (A brief digression may be allowed here. Let students read story books, sports books or joke books but they must read. Let us give maximum marks to students who have read most books. Creativity is hardly a focus in our schools. Why should students be made to remember or memorize answers to lessons? Let them be tested for creativity, for writing their stories. If most students can remember exciting cartoon shows, movie stories or narratives of shows on ZeeTV why can’t the lessons in their books?  Learning is a pleasure or it should be a pleasure. It is a soothing massage of the brain. But I leave detailed postmortem of the department to some other occasion and presently I focus on a scheme  that most teachers detest for being misused. Many teachers are expressing their extreme displeasure on midday meal scheme. Everything written here is based on information provided by teachers when personally interviewed. I have yet to meet one who approved of the scheme in its present form. They say that once upon a time teaching department was considered to be noble and free of corruption. The midday meals scheme has poisoned this profession. It has made some teachers contractors, of course c grade ones. It has inculcated begging attitude in some students. It has compelled many teachers to give less attention to teaching. Midday meal programme launched in order to feed the hungry students, correct the deficiencies in nutrition for the malnutrioned students and attract more and more students to schools is almost a complete failure in Kashmir. It is a source of great corruption. It has tempted traditionally sacrosanct professionals to corruptions of all kinds. It has led to unforeseen problems in schools.
The meals provided, generally speaking, don’t constitute balanced diet and don’t correct malnutrition. Aalu dal or soya fed to students instead of recommended menu that includes more nutritious things can’t correct the deficiencies. Sometimes not a single piece of potato is there for a student. Practically what happens is that low quality food is given to students that is sometimes too unpalatable. Many students refuse to take it because it is not worth eating. Incharge teachers show full attendance of all the students in the month including even strike days. Higher authorities are attesting the papers knowing fully well that this is manipulated. Ask any nutritionist to comment on the nutritional quality of the diet that is routinely fed to students. We should not see the manipulated statements but survey randomly different schools and ask the students. We could achieve the target of better roles for which midday meal scheme was designed without meals. Students could get better food if they need it  by the same money paid in cash. We could replace the money spent for meals for a month or two by cash payment or scholarship paid to every student to see the difference in response. This will ensure transparency as we could legislate to give money as payee’s cheque. This will ensure more attendance. This will also check the problem of false rolls reflected in many attendance systems.
I am making simply two points. Why force students to eat midday meals, to eat substandard meals, to inculcate a begging attitude in them through it? Why not try alternatives that will involve lesser corruption if not no corruption? If most teachers are not happy, if many students are not happy, if general public has reservations why impose the scheme?  There are some positive points associated with the scheme but its ill effects far outweigh the good ones. If we use all the money granted for midday schemes for uplifting only the deserving or poor students huge difference could be created. I don’t think anything could be achieved by tightening vigil on corruption in delivery of midday scheme. It seems to be a corrupt idea in its essence if applied indiscriminately in all schools, to all students. In the name of a few students in some remote areas who may be supposed to be hungry but for the midday meals or who feel it as an incentive to come to school millions of dollars are squandered, misappropriated. I wish sociology students take up this as thesis project so that the world will see a huge hoax is being perpetrated. If only half of the money spent on the scheme be spent on increasing quality of education or strengthening infrastructure of educational institutions we could very well have an educational revolution.
At many places in India midday meal scheme is working quite well but surely not in Kashmir. Agreeing that students should be provided refreshment if not full meals during recess period why not give  students an egg, a glass of milk and say a banana instead of third rate meal? If we can’t ensure quality control we should not allow the scheme to operate. I wish the balanced diet to be given to students but if the department can’t ensure that it should divert the funds to some other channel for the benefit of students.
If it is indeed necessary to feed children at schools let government ask for private services in this area. Let cafeteria be opened in all schools and the department may also pay Rs 10 to every student for the meals. I have enjoyed the best vegetable meal which will suffice for two students if not more for Rs 15  in Central University Hyderabad in students canteen a few days back.  The same or lesser could be fixed here as well and contractor shall get everything done of his own. If the teachers are able to make a business out of Rs 2 excluding rice, transport, cooking and fuel charges why can’t our contractors? If the government is sincere and nobody interested in corruption and looting public money let it invite tenders, give the room reserved for meals to contractors and fix the price of the meals rupees ten or even below excluding the cost of rice which should be provided as is in vogue now from rashan depots and of tea Rupees three.  This will employ thousands if not tens of thousands of unemployed youth. This could revive cooperatives also. It could boost vegetable industry and milk industry. If this idea is not feasible it means there is no need for the midday meals. Students, generally speaking, manage well without it. Still I grant the necessity of meals in some pockets. We should identify those pockets and confine the scheme to them. Or if we intend to give food to every student and make it mandatory the best idea is to invite youth seeking employment to open up cafeteria and serve as suppliers of food and other items like icecreams, juices. If we think private investors will not be interested in the business of midday meals in schools then why should government be so serious about it and managing to do it though badly at very cheap rates? If this is the case then there is no warrant, no compelling necessity for these meals which cost exchequer a huge sum, breed corruption, distract both teachers and students, inculcate a spirit of beggary in many students and increase burden on clerks.