By Maithili Parikh, Government Law College, Mumbai.

With the twin objectives of improving the health and education of the underprivileged, India has embarked upon an ambitious scheme of providing mid-day meals (MDM) in government and government assisted primary schools, starting from 2004. However despite the broad-based efforts of the Central Government for more than a decade and a half, the problems of anemia, vitamin deficiency, and malnutrition still plague Indian children. However more alarming than the dismal statistics on the impact of the scheme is the controversies it has generated across the country from Saran to Hyderabad and from Agra to Tamilnadu. It has been reported that the food provided by the scheme has poisoned children, causing them to fall sick after consumption.

In order to ameliorate the widely criticized and highly unpopular scheme, the Central Government has notified the Mid Day Meal Rules 2015 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Rules’) under the Food Security Act of 2013. These rules seek to increase accountability, ensure regularity of the meals in primary schools across the country and guarantee quality of the food that will be offered for consumption to the children, in light of the earlier controversies surrounding the same. The notification of the Rules was complete via the Gazette of India on the 30th of September 2015.

The Rules inter alia provide for temporary utilization of other funds available to the school for the mid day meals in case the schools exhausts the Mid-Day Meal Fund. The Headmaster or the Headmistress of the school is authorized to utilize any other funds available in the school for the purpose of continuation of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, if there was a temporary unavailability of food grains or cooking cost. The fund utilized would be reimbursed immediately after receipt of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme fund. The Rules also fix responsibility if the meals are not provided on 3 consecutive school days or 5 days a month. The effective compliance of these regulations will holistically improve the quality of the scheme.

The Rules provide that every child within the age group of six and fourteen years, that is studying class 1 to class 8, who enroll and attend school shall be provided with a healthy cooked meal consisting of a balanced diet. While this meal will be absolutely free of cost for the upper primary, except on the holidays, it will be restricted to be served only in school. This provision incentivizes parents to send their children to school and in turn improves the education system. Thus, the dual purpose of the scheme is laudable. Further the schools in rural areas are entitled to have a clean cooking area while the urban schools are allowed to use a centralized kitchen.

Another monumental change brought about by the rules is that the school management was mandated to monitor implementation of the mid-day meal scheme under the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. The school management would further be responsible for the cleanliness of the place of cooking, maintenance of hygiene and quality of the hot food served to children. The Rules crystallized the law in regard to quality of meals by empowering the Government Food and Research Laboratory or any other laboratory accredited or recognized by the law to evaluate and certify the quality of the hot cooked meal.  In order to carry out the evaluation, the Rules sanction the Food and Drugs Administration Department of the State to collect samples. These samples would be collected once a month from a school, which would be selected at random in order to not render the process futile.

Few of the above enlisted and elucidated provisions appear to reflect the foresight of the framers of the Rules. However none of these reflect it half as well as the provision in the rules regarding the contingency of non-availability of food grains, cooking cost, fuel or absence of cook-cum-helper or for any other such reasons. The Rules provide that the State Government shall pay the food security allowance by the 15th of the succeeding month, keeping in mind the quality of food grains as per the entitlement of the child and the cooking cost prevalent in the State. They further provide that in case non-supply of the meal from the Centralised Kitchen, the Food Security Allowance was to be realized from the Centralized Kitchen itself. The Rules prudently provide for when the child does not accept the meal on any offer, no claim for Food Security Allowance can be made. A provision has been included which allows for the State Government to take up a matter with the Central Government in case any agency of the Central Government is involved.  

Justice has still not been served for the death of the 23 children who lost their lives after eating a contaminated mid-day meal in the government-run primary school in the Saran district of Bihar. Two years have passed since that fateful day when 19 families lost their children. Local officers and the State Government had promised them a speedy trial, but justice seems a distant dream to the broken families, who have still not recovered from the shock. A forensic report confirmed that the meal was contaminated with toxic insecticide strains, present in the cooking oil. Despite the formation of a Special Investigation Team by the Bihar Government, no positive progress has been made and no responsibility has been fixed. In Bihar, 16 million students in 72,000 schools get daily food under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. Chilling thought, isn’t it?

The Rules comprehensively canvas all the possibilities and contingencies that may arise and overall make the Mid-Day Scheme better legally enforceable. Notified at a sensitive time, they fulfill their crucial need and make incidents such as the one in Saran less likely, especially due to the monthly testing protocol that has been inserted to evaluate the quality and nutrition content. The Mid-Day Meal Scheme was envisaged to solve the dual issues of education and nutrition but incidents such as Saran, Agra and Hyderabad make the scheme less reliable and hence tend to defeat the purpose itself. The Government and the legal mechanism must take efforts to expand the scheme by making it trustworthy. The Rules definitely seem to be a step in the right direction.