Impact: Mid Day Meals Unscammed

With poverty levels soaring and hunger being a real issue in India, the Mid Day Meal Scheme has often been lauded as one of the most innovative ways to keep kids in school. The National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NSPE) was launched almost 2 decades ago as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme with the primary aim of enhancing enrolment, retention & attendance as well as increasing the availability of nutritious food for children.  Today, this Mid Day Meal (MDM) Scheme mandates cooked food to be served to every child in every school aided by the Government.

The MDM Scheme is known to be one of the core reasons for parents preferring to send their children to school, in the hopes of the child being fed a minimum of one nutritional meal a day.  Despite its poor management, this program has had massive support from all quarters, including the varied rights-based activists and non-governmental organizations. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no standard process of monitoring or accountability in the implementation of government schemes.

Community Correspondent Reena Ramteke exposed one such case of mismanagement and brought the people involved to justice. Mid Day meals in Simaria Village’s primary school are now back on track. This is what Reena had to say:

"I head an organization based out of Gariaband - the Navnirman Chetna Jan Manch. We work closely in the nearby villages on issues of corruption using Right to Information (RTI) as a tool. One week in December 2012 I went to visit some of my colleagues in Simaria village, Kota block in Bilaspur. I'd just successfully completed filming my first video as a Community Correspondent, and my colleagues were keen for me to hear about the Kalyani Sashakti Samuh (Women's Empowerment Collective).

 For almost a decade now, women associated with the Kalyani Sashakti Samuh have been commissioned to prepare the mid-day meal at the local primary school. When it came to providing the children with food, these ladies were meticulous in providing only the best they could procure. Squeaky clean kitchens, neat storage facilities and well-fed children were the pride of this village. The women were systematic— they would first get the raw rations from the local grocer, present bills to the teacher authorized with monitoring this scheme. He would then withdraw money assigned into a special account and pay off relevant bills. While they were uncomfortable about the fact that the teacher managed all their monetary transactions, and withheld important bank documents from them, they didn't want to indulge in arguments with him.

However, from March 2012, the teacher began to concoct excuses to not give them any money. Initially they accepted his claims of bureaucratic hurdles & delays in transferring money. However, when the grocer began to complain about non-payment for rations, the women began to worry. Ultimately, the grocer refused to give them any rations. No rations meant that the children would be denied the sole nutritional meal they had had access to.

The women told me that they had already approached the Jan Darshan (public hearing) and filed a complaint there. I advised them to approach the Block Educational Officer (BEO) as well. The BEO was incredibly supportive. As soon as he was informed about the scamming teacher, he immediately ordered an inquiry. The inquiry led them to summon the grocer who found that fake bills had been submitted, on the basis of which the teacher continued to collect the allocated funds. The grocer went on to give me an interview clarifying, that the bills submitted to the BEO by the teacher were all fake. I included that in the issue video I made in December 2012.

The investigation went on till up to July 2013 and it was ultimately revealed that the teacher was responsible for this embezzlement. Earlier in March 2012, the money meant for Kalyani Sashakti Samuh had been mistakenly transferred into another account. He withdrew this money and instead of paying it on ahead, he kept it for himself. The next month, even though the money was transferred into the correct account, he simply withdrew it for himself and lied about it. After the investigation, he was officially suspended for a few months.

What was truly laudable in this whole situation was the reaction of the villagers. There were some people who had been formerly associated with other rights-based organizations. They came out in support of the Samuh members & the grocer. All these people would keep visiting the BEO's office and calling me with updates. I even tried to screen the issue video but unfortunately the BEO wasn't in office the day I went.

Assuming that poor, illiterate women cannot tackle corruption is one of the biggest misconceptions these kind of cheaters [sic] have. They think they're up against helpless people. I think the teacher believed he had a very strong alibi, with all his fake paperwork. He probably didn't realize what lengths these women would go to, to uphold their reputations. Initially I too didn't really believe the women. The conviction with which they spoke out during the interview made me hope that they weren't just scamming me.

Even when the issue video went on the edit table, I remember sitting with Shobha (Shobha A, Chhattisgarh State Editor) and going through clip after clip debating the strength of each version of this story. The teacher had even said in his interview that if false allegations like these were to lead to any investigations against him, he would commit suicide. I was terrified that going ahead with this video might lead to the death of an innocent man. Shobha however, helped me rationalize the video through - none of the other teachers knew a thing about these transactions, the grocer supported the women's version & the women themselves, had already been struggling for more than 7 months, trying to track their payments.

I've grown up battling too many people for access to education or recognition of my worth as a woman. I couldn't withdraw my support from this Samuh. They were living proof that it is possible to conduct regular, efficient schools but you just have to have a process via which regular monitoring of the implementation of government schemes takes place.

Earlier, we knew all these problems existed, but barring multiple trips to administrative offices, we couldn't do very much. Now having a camera in hand really shakes up the way people view a situation. They take it more seriously. This camera helped us change the lives of over a 100 people in Simaria. I think that pretty much justifies my worth as a Community Correspondent.”

Article By: Radhika

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