Scams in midday meals hard to execute. Just need to fix the loopholes, say gram pradhans, headmasters

Each school receives Rs 4.48 per child for a midday meal. If a school has a strength of 100, it will get Rs 450 per day. Even by trying really, really hard, one may save a maximum of Rs 1,500-2,000, said gram pradhans and headmasters. So, where are the loopholes?

Ranvijay SinghRanvijay Singh   28 Sep 2019 11:30 AM GMT

Scams in midday meals hard to execute. Just need to fix the loopholes, say gram pradhans, headmasters

"We receive Rs 4.48 per child for a midday meal. So, if a primary school has strength of 100 pupils, it will get Rs 450 approximately per day towards midday meal. Within this amount, we have to purchase vegetables, spices, pulses, milk and cooking gas. Everyone says that pradhan and headmaster have joined hands for midday meal scam. I ask what scam can be wrought in such a paltry sum? Even by trying really, really hard, one may save a maximum of Rs 1,500-2,000," said Sujit Singh, 45, gram pradhan of Pipariya Dulai Gram Panchayat in Uttar Pradesh's Pilibhit district.

Sujit Singh is hurt that at the mere mention of a midday meal scam, people begin considering pradhan and the headmaster as the scammers. He said: "Preparation of midday meals in the village schools is a direct responsibility of the pradhan and the headmaster, so if some fault occurs, people simply cry out -- 'pradhan is a thief, headmaster is a thief.' I say there first has to be some amount of money available for the theft to occur. Who would wash away one's pride for such a paltry sum?"

Singh's rationale notwithstanding, there are all too frequent news headlines mentioning various shortcomings and corruption around midday meals. Recently in news was a primary school in Uttar Pradesh's Mirzapur district for feeding the children roti with salt as midday meal. The concerned negligent teacher had therefore been suspended. At the same time, a case had been filed against the local journalist Pawan Paswan, who had shot the video and village pradhan Rajkumar Pal for conspiracy, creation of false evidence and making it viral and for defamation.

With this incidence coming to limelight, the debate over widespread corruption in midday meals has been resumed. Gaon Connection endeavored to gauge the possibility and proportion of scam in midday meal scheme at pradhan and headmaster's level. With this view, Gaon Connection dispatched its teams to several schools in various districts to know the ground reality of midday meal scheme, to understand better the complete process —midday meal preparation, related expenditure and monitoring.

The midday meal scheme has a vast reach

The midday meal scheme is a joint venture of the Union and state governments. Union government had launched the scheme on August 15, 1995. Under this, those primary school students whose attendance was 80% were given 3 kg wheat or rice. However, the benefit of the food ration failed to reach the children as it was shared by the families. So, as per the Supreme Court's directive, provision of cooked food in the primary schools was made from September 1, 2004. Thereafter, the scope of the scheme was increased to include upper primary schools too.

As per the official records, presently, the Midday Meal Scheme is benefitting Uttar Pradesh's 1,14,460 primary schools and 54,372 upper primary schools. At the same time, a total of 1.76 crore children are provided nutritious meal by the scheme. Out of these, 120.94 lakh students are in primary schools and 55.89 lakh attend upper primary schools.

So it is clear that midday meal scheme has a vast reach. Where then lays the flaw in the scheme? Why does it happen that children are fed salt-roti? With this view, Gaon Connection team surveyed some primary schools of Barabanki district and visited Akhaipur village's primary school in Barabanki. The students had been served midday meal immediately upon the team's arrival.

Delay in release of midday meal funds

Headmaster Jagdish Chandra Singh received the team in the school premises. He said: "In our school, I, and not the pradhan, supervise the midday meal preparations. I have to manage everything from vegetable to spices and I do it."

When asked how much a pradhan or a headmaster can save from midday meal, if he so wishes, he replied," Nothing. Funds are provided at the rate of Rs 4.48 per child (per child per day). The funds don't get released timely too, sometimes biannually whilst sometimes even after a year. In such a scenario, we have to spend from our own pockets. Now everything — vegetables, oil, spices, milk, cooking gas needs to be accommodated in Rs 4.48. You do the math. As per my calculation, the amount would be but a zero."

Many schools reported the same delay in release of midday meal funds, as was mentioned by headmaster Jagdish Chandra Singh. Midday meal funds are directed to the joint account of the headmaster and pradhan from which either can draw this money. As per the scheme, for each primary school student, Rs.4.48 and for upper primary student Rs 6.71 is provided out of which food expenses are to be met.

Besides this, as per the midday meal menu, provisions are made for four days' rice-based diet and two days' wheat-based diet. For this, 100 gm food grains (rice/wheat) per primary school student per day and 150 gm per upper primary student per day is also provided. The food grains are routed through government ration shops.

Headmaster Jagdish Chandra Singh said: "Looking at the school's midday menu, can anyone think that we'd be saving anything? It is impossible. Even if someone works with the intention of thrift and compromises hugely upon the quality, one may be able to eke Rs 1,000-1,500. Who would risk one's livelihood for the sake of Rs 1,000-1,500?"

He added, "In the past, it was not uncommon to find kotedar and pradhan doing away with quotas of ration, but ever since ration distribution has been digitalized, this too has been plugged. Now, monthly ration is disbursed directly. Also, it is so strictly monitored that it is inconceivable to do away with any of it."

This opinion of headmaster Jagdish Chandra Singh is seconded by Yogeshwar Singh, husband to the Pradhan of Madhav Tanda Gram Panchayat of Pilibhit district. He said: "Previously, we also used to hear of kotedar and pradhan pulling off scams in midday meals. But the situation has changed now. No ration theft is possible now. Someone attempting it will definitely be caught. This is why kotedars are themselves handing over their resignations because nothing is left in it for them. Digitalization has changed the scenario. Same thing is applicable for midday meals."

There is an agency to monitor the state of midday meals

After Akhaipur primary village, Gaon Connection team visited the upper primary school in Ghungtere in Barabanki district. Here the pupils informed that they are given daily midday meals. That day being Saturday, rice and soyabean were prepared for the meal. A Class VI student informed that he is fond of the midday meal and that they are given good meals in school. He also told that each morning at about 10.30 am, they get their midday meals.

All these statements testify that things are moving smoothly with the midday meal scheme. So, the question arises how do the news of irregularities and corruption surface then? Seeking an answer, the Gaon Connection team met up with the coordinator of a Nyay Panchayat Resource Centre in Sant Kabir Nagar district. It is the responsibility of the Nyay Panchayat Resource Centres that they inspect the schools in the purview of the particular Nyay Panchayat. They also monitor the state of midday meals in these schools.

At the condition of anonymity, the coordinator informed, "One must forget that any scam can take place at school level. Yes, it had been observed at times in the past that the attendance records of midday fed students was fudged up, but even that has been stopped through constant monitoring. No sooner are the children fed midday meals than the headmaster is called from the Midday Meal Authority seeking the exact number of children fed that very day. So, on daily basis, such records are maintained. Any monitoring team can visit the school equipped with this record. Teachers are also aware that an inspection team can come at any time so they steer away from malpractices."

Nyaya Panchayat's Resource Centre Coordinator said: "It certainly will be strange if someone tells me that pradhan and headmaster are stealing because there is hardly any money to be made. Yes, we do get information about higher level scams but very rarely."

The type of scam which he hints at had recently happened in Barabanki where midday meal funds were being directed to private accounts. About Rs 4.5 crore were syphoned off to the private accounts over a period of five years. Everyone from the senior auditor posted at the Basic Education Directorate, Lucknow to the computer operator working on ad-hoc basis at the office of Basic Education Officer, Barabanki was involved in the scam.

VP Singh, the Basic Education Officer who exposed the scam, tells Gaon Connection, "These people were sending midday meal funds to the private bank accounts besides the schools' bank accounts. Their paperwork was correct but while feeding the data on the computer, they included their personal accounts in the computer too and under fictitious school names, directed funds to those accounts. This is how the group operated. When I tallied the hard copy with the computer data, the irregularity was exposed. Seven people have been arrested in this case."

VP Singh said: "So far as school level scam is concerned, it is not a possibility. Yes, there can be instances of negligence, but no scam. Nonetheless, constant monitoring and inspection significantly weed out chances of any negligence."

Midday Meal Authority has taken several steps to ensure constant surveillance and monitoring of Midday Meal Scheme. Nutrition Expert at the Authority, Taruna Singh said: "We have IVRS (Interactive Voice Response System) which automatically dials up the headmaster daily seeking the number of recipients of midday meal. The call is repeated till the time the data is fed upon it. This is our biggest monitoring system."

Taruna Singh Says, "Whenever a task force sets out for school inspection it carries with it the IVRS data of past one month and tallies it with the midday meal register maintained at the school. Once we did this by conducting a drive in Unnao which showed only 5% discrepancy."

How many task forces does the state have? Taruna answers by saying, "We have three types of task forces. First, state-level, second, district–level and third, block-level task force. District-level task force has 12 members and is headed by the district magistrate. The block-level task force has eight members and is headed by the deputy district magistrate. Besides these, we have Nyaya Panchayat Resource Centres, which monitor the schools. It means that at each level there is ample provision for midday meal inspection."

"We have also created another system besides this to maintain the quality of food. The cook is the first link to the system. The cook's ward is given admission in the same school that she cooks for. So, in such a case, she cannot make bad food. We have also made mom groups. A mother-group has six mothers whose children study in the same school. Each woman of the group tastes the food one day a week. Every day, one mother goes to school to do the tasting and so the food quality is maintained," said Taruna Singh, a nutrition expert

One such mother associated with the mother-group was met up with during the visit to Akhaipur village primary school. Her name was Kunti Devi. "Midday meal food has improved a lot. The children like it now. My own son eats this food," she said.

Also Read: Education first: People living in rural India have high expectations

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