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School shut, no mid-day meal, children in Bihar village back to work selling scrap

With the government extending the closure of schools at least till July 31, Keshav Desiraju, former Union Health Secretary, points to “serious questions that must be answered on education and malnutrition”.

Children at the Musahari tola in Badbilla village of Bhagalpur. Many parents say they haven’t got payments meant for meals since May 3. (Express Photo/Dipankar Ghose)

IN THE arms of a young girl, three years old, is another child that isn’t yet one. She struggles with his weight, slight as he is, trying to feed him out of a bottle. It is a burden that is heavy to bear. But the fight against hunger for children of the Musahari tola in Badbilla village of Bhagalpur has been a daily challenge. In this lockdown, that burden has only become heavier.

A microcosm of Bihar, Bhagalpur is the focus of a month-long series by The Indian Express to understand the pandemic’s effects in smalltown India. It has a city that is aspirational, but its villages still suffer from issues that have plagued the state for decades. Such as malnutrition.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, 48.3 per cent children (below 5 years) were classified as “stunted” and 43.9 per cent as “underweight” in Bihar, much above the national average of 38.4 and 35.7 per cent. Gains have been made, with these percentages at 55.6 and 55.9 in 2005-06. But over the past three months, one of the primary weapons in the fight against malnutrition has stopped: mid-day meals in school.

Read| First Covid, now hunger, Bhagalpur migrants start packing — again

“Hum jaate thhe (We used to go),” the 20 of them shout together, raising their hands. “Haan (Yes),” they shout, asked if they got food in school. “Nahin (No),” they say, more quietly, asked if they have any food during the day now that schools are shut. And what was their favourite day in school? “Friday,” they shout, the one day in the week when eggs were served.

The children of the Musahari tola, a Mahadalit colony, went primarily to government schools, either in Dudhela or a little further in Shahbad, with a few going to Sultanganj town.

The menu included rice, roti, vegetables, dal, soya and, of course, Friday eggs. This backbone of nutrition has disappeared.

READ | Hours after Express report, Bihar orders food, cash to make up for school meals

At the tola, Dinu Manjhi holds out a steel plate with a lump of rice, salt, a smidgen of dal and chokha (boiled potatoes). “There is nothing else,” he says. Residents say there are 250 voters in the tola with a population of close to 1,000. Ravaged by caste discrimination and poverty, every working man or woman has only two jobs: Garbage collection or begging. Those are drying up, too.

Hira Manjhi earned Rs 300 a day from a contractor to collect waste in Sultanganj, 2 km away. “Now, we only go two days a week,” he says. His two children are too young to go to school, but they did go to the local anganwadi for one meal a day. That is shut, too.

Meena Devi says that about a month ago, government officials gave every ration-card holder 5 kg of rice or wheat, and 1 kg of dal under the PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana. “Nobody has come after that. How long do they think 1 kg of dal lasts for a family? Without the mid-day meal in school, we ask people in the village and Sultanganj for food,” she says.

READ | Bihar: In Bhagalpur, tale of 4 health centres — Crowded rooms, staff and patients without masks, gloves

District Magistrate Pranav Kumar says that according to a government programme, money has been sent to the accounts of children, or their guardians, in lieu of mid-day meals. “This is for the period when schools are shut,” he says. The move is based on an order issued by the state government on March 14, a day after schools were first shut. The order calculated the money based on the value of food being distributed: For 15 days, Rs 114.21 to children from class 1-5, and Rs 171.17 for those from classes 6-8. The cost of a full stomach? Between Rs 7.61 and Rs 11.41 a day.

But the residents of Badbilla say they have received no help. Sunil Gupta, principal of the Shanti Devi Kanya Vidyalaya in Sultanganj, says that “until lockdown-2, some money had come, which had been transferred to bank accounts…for the month of April”. But after lockdown-2 ended on May 3, she says “nothing has happened at all”. “I had a total of 265 children, and the money would go to the parents’ accounts. But the amounts are a joke,” she says.

Read| As a district unlocks

Subhash Gupta, District Programme Officer in charge of mid-day meals, says, “Money is going straight to their accounts from a centralised system. Payments have been made till May… The rough number of children enrolled in Bhagalpur is 5.25 lakh.”

However, school teachers say it is unlikely that these meagre amounts will go towards feeding children. Anjani Kumar, a teacher at the MS Madhyamik Vidyalaya, Khurd Kajraili, a government school on the outskirts of Bhagalpur, says, “Most of these children come from poor families. Money is often sent to accounts for school uniforms, and when you ask children where their new clothes are, they say their parents had to use the money. The mid-day meal was the sole reason why they came to school.”

With the government extending the closure of schools at least till July 31, Keshav Desiraju, former Union Health Secretary, points to “serious questions that must be answered on education and malnutrition”. “Online education cannot be the only answer, it can only be supplementary. And with mid-day meals, the government must look at ways where food can be delivered to the home for children,” he says.

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At the Musahari tola, there are no pucca houses or Swacch Bharat Abhiyan toilets. Every day, when the women go to nearby fields, they face angry farmers who chase them away. And in the absence of school, each child now goes to beg or collect waste, earning Rs 10-20 for plastic scrap. It is long and hard work, and Sunny Kumar has an answer for what they eat when they step out. “Bengma pakadte hai (We catch bengma),” he says. “Bengma” is the local word for frog.

Read | In Bhagalpur silk hub, looms tell a story: ‘95% collapse’

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