Mamata Banerjee’s insistence on the midday meal’s nutritional value ~ albeit without fish, meat and eggs even once a week ~ comes in the aftermath of reports that school children in Chinsurah, the headquarters of Bengal’s Hooghly district, have to make do with an absurd menu of rice and salt each day. This is a state-sponsored insult to the scheme as well as the children in search of learning. Perish the thought that the”lunch” is less than edible, let alone being fit for consumption as a midday energiser.

Given the fact that the cost of the scheme, also intended to check the ballooning dropout rate, is shared on a 60:40 ratio by the Centre and the state, there must be a fiddle somewhere if this translates to a daily fare of salt and rice. And yet the weekly menu for state-aided schools alternates between vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare with due regard for the child’s intake of calories ~ 450 for primary students and 700 for students from Class 5 to 8. While this may be the dietician’s prescription, the gap between intent and praxis is ever so wide. Such calibration is of little or no moment in the overall construct.

Though the Chief Minister is yet to get to the bottom of the culinary absurdity ~ as shoddy as the infrastructure in the primary segment ~ it is generally acknowledged by senior officials at Nabanna that lack of supervision has been the bane of the scheme, as critical as a welfare initiative as it is to facilitate the advancement of learning. The responsibility must rest equally on the education and food and supply departments.

The murk is not unique to Bengal, however. For the past two years, students of Siyur Primary School in UP’s Mirzapur district have been served salt and chapattis as the midday fare. The children can at least be spared the mutual blame-game indulged in by the school authorities and the district administration. Neither here nor there is the facile excuse for an ugly truth as proffered by the district’s basic education cell ~”It may be happening because of mismanagement by teachers. We’ll see why it is happening.”

The short point must be that more than deliberate mismanagement has plagued the midday meal scheme from Bengal to eastern Uttar Pradesh. And there may be substance in the suspicion that the Rs 2 a kg rice ~ earmarked for the subaltern in Junglemahal ~ is often diverted to the storerooms of rural schools in other parts of Bengal. “An egg costs Rs 6 and the daily allotment for each student is Rs 4.31. How can schools buy eggs for students with the allotted money?” was the Chief Minister’s query at Monday’s administrative review meeting. If central pump-priming is the remedy, no less imperative is a crackdown on corruption… both in terms of siphoning funds and food items. The distressing parable must be that the child in search of learning has been shortchanged by the adult in this travesty of the Right to Education Act.