खबर लहरिया Development Why the Uttar Pradesh village at the centre of the Chapatti-salt midday meal row is still seething

Why the Uttar Pradesh village at the centre of the Chapatti-salt midday meal row is still seething

On August 22, Pawan Jaiswal, a journalist with Jansandesh Times in Uttar Pradesh, released a video showing schoolchildren at Siyur village in Mirzapur district being served a meager meal of chapatti and salt for lunch. The political drama triggered by the expose has since subsided, the news cycle has moved on. But those caught in the storm are still living the consequences.

Jaiswal is facing a case for “criminal conspiracy”. Rajkumar Pal, the village headman’s representative who had tipped off the journalist about the poor quality of midday meals at the Siyur school, remains under arrest, booked for “maligning the administration’s reputation”.

While the Editors Guild of India has condemned the case against Jaiswal as a “classic case of shooting the messenger”, Pal’s arrest flies in the face of the state’s four-tier system for supervising the functioning of government schools, in accordance with the principle of decentralization. The Village Education Committee, comprising panchayat representatives, sits at the bottom of this system and, among other functions, is meant to monitor the quality of midday meals. If the committee makes a complaint about the provision of quality of the meals, it is the responsibility of the state government to take action against the school authorities concerned.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s response to the expose also calls into question the efficacy of its Interactive Voice Response system, which is supposedly designed to monitor midday meals in real-time. In fact, government data shows Uttar Pradesh has logged the highest number of complaints of any state regarding the poor quality of midday meals from 2013 to 2016.

Not surprisingly, the residents of Siyur are outraged. Pal’s wife Sushila complained that her husband was being punished for “performing his duty” as the representative of the village headman.

Chameli Devi, a resident, claimed the quality of the meals had been poor for nearly a year. They complained about it to the headmaster, Murari Lal, but he didn’t pay any heed, saying the school could only provide whatever was available in the kitchen, she alleged.

The school’s cook, Mamta, seemed to confirm this. “I can only make whatever is given to me,” she said.

Nirmala Devi, another resident, said if the children continue to be served just chapatti and salt for lunch, there would be no reason for the villagers to send them to school. They might as well stay home, she added.

Anurag Patel, Mirzapur’s district magistrate, rejected these claims, insisting that it was an isolated incident and that the children are otherwise provided “proper meals”. His initial response to the expose, though, had been to remove the headmaster as well as some block-level officials tasked with supervising the functioning of the school under the four-tier system.

Chinta Devi, another resident, summed up the villagers’ sentiment thus: “Those at fault should be caught, those who have done no wrong should be let free.”

It’s not just the quality of midday meals that Siyur’s residents are concerned about. At the school, Khabar Lahariya found that there was no proper water supply, high-voltage power lines hung dangerously low above the premises, toilets and boundary walls lay in disrepair, although repairs have started in the wake of the controversy. The Siyur school symbolizes the majority of Uttar Pradesh’s government schools. The latest Performance Grading Index, which is prepared by the central Department of School Education and Literacy and ranks states according to the quality of school education based on 70 parameters such as infrastructure, learning outcomes and midday meals, assigns Uttar Pradesh a poor Grade 5.

Yet, the administration chose to brazen it out when Jaiswal exposed the poor quality of midday meals, much to the chagrin of Shanti  Devi, a teaching assistant at the Siyur school. She is the only school official other than the cook who hasn’t been transferred after the expose. “Please don’t ask me any questions,” Devi responded when asked about the row. “My head is spinning from answering so many questions. There is nobody to take care of my children if something happens to me.”

Reported by Meera Devi and Sushila, written by Nikita Joseph.

This Khabar Lahariya article first appeared in Newslaundry.