In Gujarat, Akshaya Patra in Action

by Chikashi

The mid-day scare: What is the solution? (Source: DNA)

Sunday, Aug 4, 2013, 13:56 IST | Agency: DNA

by Guruprasad Mohapatra

Gujarat was one of the first states to break away from the school-based decentralised kitchen model and go for a centralised kitchen system run by Akshaya Patra in parts of Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar.

In wake of the terrible mid-day meal (MDM) tragedy in Bihar that caught everyone’s attention, several opinions are being presented on how the world’s largest school-feeding programme covering more than 12 crore children ought to run. Ever since the Supreme Court mandated that the MDM scheme should serve hot, cooked meals, the alternative approach to give dry rations or ready-to-eat snacks like biscuits, ground nuts etc became non-available. Since cooked, hot meal has to be compulsorily served to schoolchildren in around 12.65 lakh schools, the issue is whether the cooking has to be decentralised, based in each school or if a common, centralized kitchen to serve a manageable number of schools is a better alternative.

Not many would know that the first attempt to serve mid-day meals to schoolchildren was in Chennai by the British in 1925 and was later followed by the French in Pondicherry! In India, Tamil Nadu was the first state to start MDM on a big scale. Gujarat was the second state to introduce this in 1984. This massive programme aims to achieve universalisation of primary education by attracting maximum attendance through the mid-day meal and raise the nutritional status of the children, since India scores poorly on the hunger and the nutritional status of children worldwide.

To overcome the oft-repeated complaints about the MDM scheme such as poor quality of the cooked meals, poor taste, pilferage of ration and occasional adulteration, Gujarat was one of the first states to break away from the school-based decentralised kitchen model and go for a centralised kitchen system run by Akshaya Patra in parts of Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. Later on, this was introduced in Vadodara city and nearby talukas.

Akshaya Patra operates a central kitchen in top hygienic conditions and in factory-like operations, cooks meals and packs the food in hot boxes and through customised vans, supplies tasty, hot food to thousands of schoolchildren. Ever since this experiment was introduced, it has led to more attendance, higher percentage of children eating the meals and almost zero complaints of quality and taste of food. It has also ended all complaints of pilferage of the dry rations and vegetables.

It is a herculean task and almost impossible to expect quality monitoring in a decentralised system in more than 12 lakh schools in the country. Organizers of the MDM centre are poorly paid, contractual staff, least motivated about and committed to the programme. To expect the teachers to taste the food may not be practical and would not guarantee quality or taste. In the Gujarat model, the entire amount is given to the NGO which also manages to get tax-free donations in order to add to the quality of the programme. A third-party audit on the cooking materials and the cooked food would ensure that the desired quality is maintained.

The primary job of a school and its teachers is to build characters and impart quality education. To expect them to undertake supervision of a mid-day meal scheme is fraught with risks. A good scheme, which encourages quality NGOs or firms to take up the MDM scheme as is done in Gujarat, is certainly a better alternative than lakhs of decentralised kitchens all over the country.

The author is municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad

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