THE primary education ministry has sent a project proposal involving Tk 192.96 billion for free midday meals for about 14.78 million students of 65,620 government primary schools for five years beginning in 2021. The Planning Commission has found the proposal to have been overvalued and sent it back to the ministry for a revision. The ministry is reported to have worked out the proposal on the Cabinet Division’s approval of August 2019. In the proposal, as sent to the Planning Commission and sent back to the ministry, which entails kichuri — a dietary preparation of rice, lentil and, perhaps, vegetables — one day and fortified biscuits the other day for students, the primary education ministry has sought about Tk 171.86 billion in biscuit and kichuri ingredient cost. The ministry has further sought an allocation of about Tk 17.18 billion in distribution cost and Tk 60 million for the appointment of consultants. The draft policy that was placed in the Cabinet Division in 2019, however, says that the government would need to spend Tk 28.35 billion on fortified biscuits for students six days a week in a year, which adds up to Tk 141.75 billion in five years. The Planning Commission has overall found the project to have been overvalued and sent it back for a revision.
What is unreasonable in the proposal is a component that involves Tk 50 million for the overseas training of about 500 officers, one from each of the upazilas, in the distribution of the midday meals. The project also has a provision for the training of other officials at home involving Tk 1 billion. While foreign trips of officials in the name of training with project funds have earlier been discouraged, there should be no reason for the ministry to have such a component in the project and not now when the country has still faced the COVID-19 emergency since early March. The government has run midday meal programmes in many schools for years. Even the latest move has been taken on the success of midday meal schemes with fortified biscuits for children in 104 upazilas and cooked meals for students in three upazilas in Barguna, Jamalpur and Bandarban that have run since 2010. Primary education officers should build on their experience of having already run the scheme in these schools for about a decade. The authorities concerned should also stop government agencies from including such provisions for foreign trips in the name of training in projects that appear to solely squander away public money.
Free midday meals in schools are a good way to arrest dropout, and therefore to increase literacy, as parents and guardians in rural areas consider sending their children to school to be a waste of time, when they could engage in work to supplement the family income. While midday meal schemes help to retain students, it also plays a crucial role in the nutritional development of the children and, thus, help to unburden public health of some burdens in consequent illness. The government must, therefore, run the midday meal programmes early and in earnest. But it must purge the projects of bells and trinkets that hardly do the projects any good but apparently serve the purpose of aggrandisement of a few officials.
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