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Home / Politics / Policy /  Govt may rope in NSS volunteers to streamline mid-day meal scheme

New Delhi: After 23 children died of eating pesticide-laced lunch in a Bihar school on 16 July, the human resource development (HRD) ministry is scrambling to streamline its mid-day meal scheme.

The ministry may involve volunteers of the National Service Scheme (NSS), run by the youth affairs ministry, to monitor the welfare programme aimed at ending classroom hunger and lowering dropout rates.

“We should explore the possibility of involving the youth in the mid-day meal scheme," HRD minister M.M. Pallam Raju said. The NSS has more than 3.2 million volunteers from 298 educational institutions.

Raju on Thursday held a meeting with officials from the ministries of health and family welfare, rural development, tribal affairs, youth affairs, minorities affairs, and drinking water and sanitation departments to discuss ways to smoothly operate the mid-day meal scheme and prevent incidents such as the one in Dharmasati Gandaman village of Saran district in Bihar.

The health ministry suggested involving accredited social health activists (Asha) to monitor the nutrition and hygiene aspects of the food scheme.

“A mechanism should be explored to utilize over 800,000 Asha workers in villages to get their support for monitoring the quality and hygiene of the meal," health secretary K. Desiraju suggested in the meeting. Ashas are the foot soldiers of the National Rural Health Mission, a welfare programme to provide access to healthcare in rural India.

Nearly half the students enrolling in class I drop out before reaching class X, owing mostly to poverty and hunger. There are more than 133 million students in primary schools. The mid-day meal programme is largely funded by a 2% education cess on income tax payers. In the 2013-14 national budget, the central government allocated 13,215 crore for the scheme.

After the Bihar incident, parents, administrators and experts have blamed poor monitoring mechanisms, not enough kitchens and a huge shortage of cooks for repeated irregularities. In the past two years, 116 cases of students falling ill after eating lunch in schools have been reported from across the country, official data show.

There have been recent demands for a dedicated cadre to oversee the school lunch programme.

“I think the government needs to rope in external monitors and relieve teachers from the mid-day meal scheme," Raghavendra Prasad Singh, a teacher in a government school in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. “Once you have a dedicated cadre, it will help both education and the scheme."

The key concerns for the mid-day meal programme are its poor supply chain and supply of poor quality cereals, according to N.C. Saxena, a Supreme Court-appointed commissioner who monitors programmes that seek to eliminate hunger.

Saxena, who is a member of the National Advisory Committee that sets the social agenda of the United Progressive Alliance government, pointed out that late payments to school management committees also impede the scheme.

Reacting to the observation, school education secretary R. Bhattacharya said his ministry might make electronic payments to cut down the time lag, a method already used in Kerala.

On the monitoring of quality and hygiene, K. Chandramouli, chairman of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, suggested in the meeting that the HRD ministry could utilize its 300 accredited labs to periodically test the food served to the children.

The anger and apprehension of parents over the welfare scheme may have negative implications for the ruling coalition in New Delhi.

“When you spend over 13,000 crore on a scheme, you expect a better result, but the situation indicates otherwise," an independent education consultant said, requesting anonymity.

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