WHILE renewing contracts of the self-help groups (SHGs) to supply cooked food under mid-day meal scheme till the end of the current academic year Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar has sent a strong message across that they have to improve the quality of food or risk being dropped from the list of suppliers. He said the primary aim of the government was to provide good quality mid-day meals to students. The government could seek the services of Akshaya Patra to improve the quality of mid-day meals in the interest of students. The SHGs should take the warning of the Chief Minister seriously and improve upon the quality of the food and their services as failure to do so would force the government to look for the alternative supplier, Akshay Patra.
The warning was issued by the Chief Minister in wake of serious allegations of poor quality of food being supplied by the SHGs. There have been dozens of cases of students taking ill after consuming food supplied under the scheme. A few cases of lizards, cockroaches and insects having been found in cooked food also have been reported. Besides, there have also been cases of food turning stale by the time it was served to the students, forcing the authorities not to serve the same and as a result of which children having to skip their meals. There have also been cases of students refusing to consume the food because of its poor quality. Though scores of cases have been booked against the errant SHGs no deterrent action has been taken so far. The authorities have limited their action to issuing warning letters and suspension of licences ranging from a few days to weeks and allowing the same SHGs to resume their activities later on. Even as the contract with the SHGs was renewed, the Food and Drugs Administration cracked down on a SHG and a bakery supplying bread to the SHG in Sattari for unhygienic condition of the kitchen and bakery in Sattari taluka.
The Chief Minister has gone on record to state that his government does not want to put the lives of school children at risk by supplying them sub-standard food cooked by SHGs in unhygienic conditions. The mid-day meal scheme was launched to provide tasty, nutritious and healthy food and not for the welfare and profit of the SHGs. The state authorities are to be blamed for having allowed SHGs to prepare food in unhygienic conditions and awarded them the contracts without physically verifying their kitchens. Had stringent checks been carried out before the contracts were awarded and surprise checks were made most of the SHGs might not have qualified for the contracts. Many SHGs proliferated overnight as the scheme was launched and those who wielded political connections made a grade without having the right facilities in place. It was only after cases of food poisoning or foreign objects having been found in food that the authorities thought of putting a mechanism to check quality. The quality checks, however, failed to yield the results and cases of food poisoning and SHGs supplying stale food, which was served to students, continue to be reported.
As most of the SHGs owe allegiance to politicians, they feel that their political masters will bail them out in cases of crisis. This has been evident in most cases when the licences of the groups were suspended by the FDA for preparing food in unhygienic conditions and on other grounds. Despite 0food rates having been fixed by experts the SHGs have been demanding higher rates hoping that they could bully the authorities and have their way. They also opposed the government idea of roping in the services of Akshay Patra for supply of good quality food at the same rates. Stating that around 1,000 families would be affected in case government withdraws the contract, the SHGs also threatened an agitation in case the government went ahead with its proposal. It appears that having rendered their services to the politicians during elections, these groups are using their connections and political clout to coerce the authorities. It is time that the authorities take a call to rein in these bullies and make them fall in line or lose the contracts. The government must have strong checks and balances to ensure that only standard quality food was supplied to students. The authorities should show their resolve in providing good quality food to students by acting against the errant suppliers by blacklisting them. Only stringent action will prompt the SHGs to improve food quality.