Sahebganj, Jharkhand: Nine-year-old Pinki Paharin lives in an isolated tribal village in Chuha Pahar, situated atop the Rajmahal Hills in Sahebganj district of Jharkhand. Her village has a primary school where her name has been registered since she was 5 years old.
According to the government data, against her name, money is released regularly for her to have a nutritious mid-day meal that includes rice, green leafy vegetables and lentils. In reality, however, Pinki doesn’t get this food. Instead, she hunts for rats, squirrels and rabbits to eat.
In this year’s budget allocation, Rs 10,000 crores have been allocated for 10.03 crore children in 11.5 lakh schools nationwide. Between the central and the state government, Rs 4- Rs 6 is being given per child per day for a nutritious meal.
The question thus is- why is Pinki hunting wild animals for her lunch?
Launched in 1995, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme was set out to achieve two things: to boost school attendance and to provide nutrition.
With dedicated nutrition goals (450-700 calories and 12 to 20 grams of protein) for primary and upper primary school children, the programme was welcomed for its potential to end chronic malnutrition and starvation.
The scheme looks more promising with the state and central governments dedicated to its funding. The funding is shared in the ratio of 60:40 between Centre and the states; except in 8 northeast states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura) and three Himalayan states (Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) where it is 90:10 and for the Union Territories which has 100 per cent central funding since April 2015.
The ground reports, however, show a very different reality.
NDTV and Video Volunteers’ Teams visited the schools in the hilly regions of Sahebganj to take stock of the situation. The classrooms were found to be empty. Villagers complained that teachers refuse to come to the schools as there is no motorable road connecting the main city to these villages.
Home to the Sauria Paharia adivasi community, the villages in Rajmahal hills are surrounded by stone mining quarries. A one-way journey can take over an hour on foot.
An SMS-based monitoring system was put in place by the government last year to plug loopholes and ensure transparency. The idea was to manage stock of food by maintaining the inventory on the basis of meal consumption. Through this service, the school authority would send daily updates on attendance, weekly stock update, stock received for rice and amount received for cooking cost that would show up on the MDM report website.
The reporting team got prior information that this service was being misused and teachers come to school only during the national holidays – sing the national anthem, feed the children sweets, take photographs as evidence and submit it to the education department. Keeping this in mind, the team visited the school on the Republic Day.
When a teacher was asked why his attendance was low, he complained about the distance, his salary and his inability to speak the tribal language.
Mohammad Fasi-ud-Jama, teacher at the school said, “I speak in Hindi, and they use Paharia. They understand very little of what I teach.” When asked if he had shared these concerns with the authorities, he didn’t reply.
He said the money for mid-day meals came regularly, which he gave to the village pradhan along with the dry rations. Messa Paharia, the village pradhan acknowledged that they were informed when the dry rations arrived but said no mid-day meals were being cooked and no teachers were coming to school.
“We get rice supply, we can serve khichdi, but students don’t come. If the teachers come, students would gather in the school and eat,” said Messa Paharia.
He further said that they don’t distribute the rice and eat them together during village meetings.
“The gram sevak does his job. So do the bureaucrats. But the village teacher doesn’t,” he said.
The team found out that due to corruption, pilferage and lack of monitoring in the village, several children like Pinki Paharin are going hungry, suffering from acute infections and malnutrition.
The Jharkhand Economic Survey 2015-16, however, states the opposite. It says that more students in the state have access to facilities like free education and mid-day meals in the primary and the upper primary levels of education as compared to the national level.
The government has announced that starting July, children and parents with valid Aadhar cards will be given mid-day meals. Activists say that while this may weed out corruption, it will not help children like Pinki.
The current state of affairs leave some pertinent questions: Why is the government not closely monitoring Rs 10,000 crore that it spends annually on this ambitious project? And who is answerable for Pinki Paharin not receiving the nutrition promised to her?
Note: NDTV along with Video Volunteers, an international organisation that empowers marginalised communities to report stories, travelled to schools in Sahebganj district Jharkhand as a part of the NDTV Every Life Counts campaign. All data has been sourced from Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Minsitry of Women and Child Development and Save the Children.