Guidelines and hygiene go for toss amidst mid-day meal mess

Spate of food poisoning cases due to mid-day meals (MDMs) witnessed across the country in recent years had been shocking. Latest of such incidents include the hospitalisation of 26 students after eating MDMs at a school in a Telangana village, and nine students of a government school in Delhi taking ill after consuming MDMs that allegedly had a dead rat.
Most appalling of such MDM disaster incidents are of around 50 students falling sick due to low-quality MDMs at a government school in Madhya Pradesh in September 2015; over 100 girls hospitalised after eating school lunch in Neyveli, Tamil Nadu, in July 2013; and traces of organic phosphorus content in MDMs leaving over 20 school kids dead in Bihar’s Chapra district in July 2013.
A research reveals that only one/fifth samples were taken from centralised kitchens run by NGOs, for providing MDMs in government schools in the capital, met prescribed standards. How more horrifying can things get?
MDM scheme was launched in India in 1995 and is governed by the National Food Security Act, 2013. Adulteration/food poisoning is punishable under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. However, the mere framing of regulations and even prosecution proceedings under the statutory provisions have not made any difference as in reality in most cases after the media circus is over, one pleads guilty, pays a minor fine and goes scot-free.
The framing of strict, time-bound disciplinary procedures and actions and, above all, implementation of the said regulations are need of the hour. In case of violation/s, an immediate explanation must be demanded from the negligent official/s concerned not just the high-ranking officials, but also those directly responsible for the allocated job. Actions taken could vary.
While in case of a major violation, harsh penalties such as dismissal, demotion, or removal should be imposed on officials directly responsible; in the event of a minor violation, penalties such as lowering increment, stagnation in pay, written warnings etc should be imposed. Similar minor penalties should be imposed on ones indirectly or partially responsible for such incidents. Disciplinary action and procedures—such as issuing charge sheet/show cause notice, demanding explanation or enquiry—may take time, of course within a reasonable limit, but actions such as suspension must be taken immediately. These are the only effective ways to deter and reprimand errant officials of their duties.
Remedial and penal policies are very much in place in educational institutions. However, awareness and implementation is mostly lacking. There is need to make actions time-bound along with reasonable provisions of condonation of delay, strict and regular supervision by higher officials of the actions taken, and transparency and accountability to public with regard to the measures taken.
Furthermore, backdoor entry of merit-less non-performers, especially in government departments, is a key loophole in our economic system. Just as multinationals owe their growth to educated, meritorious, vigilant and skilled employees, government positions, too, deserve to be occupied by worthy ones. It is high time for the legislature to slam the doors on such shady termites.
Other steps that should be taken are directions to schools to upload information about compliance of food safety norms on its website/s, installation of CCTV cameras in areas where food is cooked and served, a notice on school’s board about legal provisions and actions in case of violations.

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