There is no simple way of doing a story, it seems.
And there is NEVER one single, straightforward story with any given story.
Each issue is entangled with a dozen different issues. In a country like India - dozens of states, hundreds of cultural differences, millions of problems, a billion people... how is one to point to a given situation and say - "This is the problem! Let's crack it"?
How does one solve a problem without resolving the other composite sub-problems?
I set out to investigate the implementation of the mid-day meal scheme in the country, following the Supreme Court order and its January 2005 deadline.
But this is not a simple matter of receiving government funds and grains, setting a nice fire going and cooking over it, so that millions of primary school children can rest assured of at least one meal a day.
The mid-day meal scheme combines the undoubtedly noble objectives of feeding kids, getting them to enrol in school and giving them an incentive to stay on. But how is one to implement the scheme in a village that doesn't have a school at all?
The implementation of this particular scheme has to be preceded by another scheme that ensures the existence of at least one primary school in each village.
Authorities might argue that there are schools of some sort in various rural panchayat-areas, across the country. But each panchayat areas could be spread over dozens of kilometres. Especially in tribal-forest areas like Chhatisgarh and Jharkhan, or desert regions like Rajasthan. Each hamlet (not panchayat-village) needs a school of its own.
If a child (and we're talking about primary-level kids, which means they're likely to be between five and eleven) is expected to trek twenty-odd kilometres everyday... where's the point? He's going to burn up more than those 300 calories stipulated as the mid-day meal norm, just trekking about!
Assuming there is a school in each hamlet, you have to ensure that some sort of infrastructure is in place, in each block-district. Even if you make it legally binding for the grains to reach the school through the nearest FCI (Food Corporation of India) depot, the scheme simply WON'T work, unless there's a motorable road in place. And maybe a ferry too, for villages that lie across a river. Across streams, rivers, mountains and ravines, over bridges and in times of flood - transportation is the single largest hitch to implementation. Often, kids are charged a few rupees each month (which they can ill afford) to help pay transportation costs, though of course, I cannot prove this in a court of law.
Even if the local administration is incorruptible, it isn't easy to ensure a smooth flow of foodgrains to each tiny school, when you're using bullock-cart or a bicycle to transport the stuff. And can you imagine how difficult it is for block officials to monitor the scheme, if they can't make regular visits to the schools?
Assuming there's a school and there's a road to ensure steady foodgrain supply, you need to have a teacher.
The local master/guru/teacher is lord of the village school. He/she opens the school-doors each morning. No master, no school, no meal. It is the schoolmaster who keeps accounts, receives funds, hands money over to the cook to buy other essentials like firewood, utensils, salt, pulses and veggies. The teacher may not cook himself, but the meal will not be made available to the kids in his absence.
Across the country, there is a huge problem of teacher-absenteeism. Especially in places where the teacher doesn't receive his salary on time, or doesn't make enough to bother about the job. It makes more sense to lock up the school and keep filling in the attendance register from home... just for the record... just in case there's an enquiry. The teacher has to have some sort of personal incentive to make this system work.... right?
Assuming you have a school, some infrastructure, a teacher who turns up on a daily basis, and assuming the foodgrains get lifted from the FCI godowns in time and delivered on time after provisions have been made for transportation costs, we need people who are not corrupt.
In India, that's a tall order.
You need to ensure that there is no leakage at any stage of the chain. The FCI must hand over ALL the grains, and the block must depute someone who won't pilfer any stuff during transportation. You need a fair-minded fair-price shop dealer, and a clean panchayat, and committed school-teachers and an honest cook.
And to top it all, you have to have an infallible monitoring system... And there is no such thing as an infallible system.
You could have inspection officials or you could have the block officers. But you come closest to the ideal if you press into service those who are most directly benefitted by the scheme - i.e. the poorest families, specifically the mothers of those children who need to eat a decent meal, as often as they can get it.
In Chhatisgarh, the monitoring system has begun to function. The women of the villages, mostly tribals, have taken the lead, as they force their teachers and panchayats to behave. They've tackled the public distribution system leakages, and the aanganwadi system which has fallen into complete ruin. They're beginning to whip local politicians and standing for panchayat elections themselves. They're showing us the right way to democracy.
In Chhatisgarh, I think, the mid-day meal just might work.