Mid-day meal: A system that lacks political will

Bengaluru: Incidents of food poisoning and children falling into boiling sambar grab media attention of ministers, and different departments then make multiple sweeping promises.
The furore later dies down till another child loses his or her life in some other ‘newsworthy’ manner. School meals are important, but they cannot be viewed in isolation without looking deeply into social sectors such as health, education and nutrition.
It is important that the government and different departments work to prevent these episodes rather than simply reacting to them. Prevention cannot happen without addressing multiple issues.
Whether the issue is of adequate funding, a full and well paid permanent staff, grievance redressal systems, constant monitoring and efficient systems of procurement, capacity building of staff or vast spaces for storage and cooking — they all need to be addressed.
Unless that happens, the government is setting itself up for failure and relinquishing its role as protector. Failure of any structure within the government is viewed with glee by the ever watchful neo-liberal vultures and sharks. And a real or perceived failure of the government to deliver is taken up as a mantra to privatise.
Primary and secondary education minister Kimmane Ratnakar said recently that “he himself will go the corporate companies seeking financial help from them to construct/upgrade government schools”. This is dangerous. Corporates and private players are even less accountable than the government. The private sector is driven only by the logic of profit.
It is important that needs of communities are addressed in a holistic and concerted manner  and basic rights are upheld no matter what political party is in power. The decision makers should stop viewing communities as passive recipients and see them as active participants in addressing their own needs.
As part of this we need community councils to oversee implementation of projects at the local level. Also, the different departments of health, education and nutrition need to develop common policies.
The divergence could come at the point of implementation. Monitoring and evaluation must also be convergent so that the impact of each social sector on the other can be revisited constantly.
Also important is political will. We are not talking  about political verbal diarrhoea but a genuine wish to make changes using positions of power.
We need to create responsive, dynamic and accountable structures that can be constantly revisited at the micro and macro level. For every incident at an anganwadi, a poor female anganwadi worker is sacked. When schoolmeals fail, cooks are sacked. How do these decisions strengthen the system?
A colluding government and an unscrupulous market agency could ensure large scale takeover of public resources by private players , but this could play even more havoc with the health, nutrition and education of our children, especially the most marginalised and vulnerable. No system survives when social safety nets are threatened.  
- The writer is a doctor of public health and co-convener of Jana Arogya Andolana Karnataka, which upholds health and nutrition as fundamental right to be planned, implemented and monitored only by the government.

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