In a shocking development for the nutrition of children and the human development index in general, the Maharashtra government has unilaterally cut supplies of cooking oil, pulses or vegetables to the state’s schools, the Swati Gole of the Times of Indian reports. The result? The much needed midday meal scheme across the state has been floundering for the past few weeks with no cooking oil, pulses or vegetables to cook the ‘khichdi’ that is served to school students in both rural and urban areas. The only thing supplied to schools has been raw foodgrains Neither has the funds been disbursed to enable schools to make purchases.
So far, in some schools, principals are spending on ingredients from their own pockets because they do not want the children to suffer. Shockingly, other schools have not even received their supply of food grain. When contacted by TOI, state government officials said that funds would soon be released for the scheme. According to the state education director Mahesh Palkar, “the Union government recently disbursed the first instalment of Rs 400 crore to the state. The state government will allocate the amount to the education department, which in turn will disburse the amount to schools and kitchen contractors. The process would take another fortnight.”
According to data put out by TOI, 80 lakh students 79,000 rural schools in the state and 20 lakh students in 7,500 schools in urban areas benefit from the midday meal scheme totally.
Meanwhile, kitchen contractors and women self-help groups that provide cooked meals to schools have written to the state government to speed up the reimbursement process, but have been told to wait. Rajesh Gaikwad, who manages a centralised kitchen in Pune, said, “We are managing from our own pockets. The system is to reimburse us for the raw material. The reimbursements have been pending since March. ” Most students in rural areas rely on the meals provided by schools, which help curb malnutrition. Teachers said the meals convince parents to send their children to school.
Mahendra Ganpule, a senior official of the principals’ association in Maharashtra, said, “When kitchen contractors go to the government for reimbursements, the officers threaten to terminate their contracts. Fear of losing the contracts makes them continue with their funding. ” The government recently told all kitchen contractors and schools to fill up information in the online system about how many children ate daily and quantity of meals cooked every day. A manager at a centralised kitchen shed in Bhor taluka said the online system does not work because it is not possible to share data in the system every day. “We are able to feed the data on some days but on other days the system is either down or we are unable to give inputs due to the workload,” he added.
Two months ago, in August 2022, another circular issued by the Directorate of School Education (Primary), made it mandatory for the schools to have a mandatory Aadhar card to avail of the midday meal scheme, the deadline for this being November.
Educators and teachers across the state took exception to this policy decision, stating to the Indian Express that, “This is inappropriate and not in line with the Right To Education (RTE) act. Moreover, there is no such clause by the Centre which runs the policy,” adding, “Putting such a condition is going to have an impact.”
According to state-wide data shared by Ganpule, accessed by the Indian Express, out of 1,89,94,363 students with Aadhaar enrolment, only 89,29,525 have valid Aadhaar count. And out of total student enrolment count of 2,24,50,469 across the state, Aadhaar details of 34,56,106 students are yet not available.
Other teachers were quoted by the newspaper like Vijay Kombe, a Zilla Parishad School teacher from Wardha district who is also the secretary of Maharashtra State Primary Teachers’ Association, said, “These technical mistakes are rampant in rural areas. Most parents won’t even know how to spell a name in English. Many times, illiterate parents have to depend on the operator to fill in the correct information. Many students in tribal belts don’t have an Aadhaar card.”
However, the directorate was unyielding on its stand. Director of Education (Primary) Dinkar Temkar, who looks after the midday meal scheme in Maharashtra, said, “There is no Aadhaar mandate for school admissions. But in order to avail the facilities, students will need to have valid Aadhaar registration. There have been instances in the past when schools have forged the data of student count. The verification process for valid Aadhaar registration is important to ensure that the given 12-digits is a correct Aadhaar card number and is not repeated in any other school.”