“Quiero de un plato de lagartija arroz”. Now doesn’t that sound like an exotic dish? Anything sounds exotic in Spanish. Translated into simple English that sentence means “I want one plate of lizard rice”. Eww! Why would anyone say that? No one in their right mind would. Yet 27 children in Bihar fell sick having eaten a dish they certainly did not ask for. 27 children who braved poverty and many other obstacles to reach a government school for a meagre education that was going to be their ticket to a hopefully not so meagre life. Instead they were poisoned. If that doesn’t encourage children to dropout from school what will?
What is actually shocking is that this is still run of the mill compared to the reports of a baby snake being discovered in the food in a Haryana school or the fact that students in Jharkhand hunt and eat rodents, since they do not get a midday meal in schools.
What is the mid-day meal? A simple meal of rice and pulses. Meant to give children proteins and basic calories and what is often the one hot meal that children get in a day. Hunger and malnourishment are leading causes of children missing school and all over the world school feeding programmes have been known to attract children to school the idea behind it being simple. Well-fed children learn better and thrive.
In India the Supreme Court orders in 2001 and 2004 clearly state that all children attending government or government assisted primary schools shall get a cooked meal of a minimum of 300 calories comprising of 8 to 12 grams of protein for a minimum of 200 days in a year and this will continue in the holidays in drought affected regions. Growing children between the ages of 7 and 10 need as much as 1500 to 1800 kilocalories a day.
What the midday meal does theoretically is fulfil a portion of that dietary requirement so that children who very often come to school on an empty stomach can have enough energy to focus on and participate in the happenings at school. The food is supposed to be prepared locally keeping any regional peculiarities in mind and the school management committee is supposed to ensure hygiene and quality. The midday meal is very much a part of the child’s rights as per the Right to Education Act 2009.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to development is similarly paved. Policies on paper that do not translate to practice, practices that are not adequately monitored all leading to outcomes that barely scratch the surface.
While ensuring high standards of delivery may still be a way off, the least we can do is exclude the reptile and rodent kingdom from our children’s daily diet.