The video is damning. Children squat on the school floor, tear off pieces of chapati, dip them in salt and eat them. It is all they have been served at the mid-day meal in their government school in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district.

Their meal was captured on video on August 22 by Pawan Jaiswal, a journalist with the Hindi newspaper Jansandesh Times. Jaiswal says he was told these sparse meals were a frequent occurrence. Jaiswal’s video led to an inspection by the Mirzapur District Magistrate, school officials being suspended and the promise of an investigation by the Adityanath government.

Astonishingly on Sunday, Jaiswal was named in an FIR filed by the Uttar Pradesh police and charged with being involved in a criminal conspiracy. Also mentioned in the FIR were Rajkumar Pal, a representative of the village head who allegedly called Jaiswal to the school, and one unidentified person.

Uttar Pradesh guidelines lay down that mid-day meals must consist of either roti and vegetables with soybean, or tehri (pulao), or roti with dal. This is in keeping with Central government requirements that each child be served a meal 450 calories, with 12 grams of protein, per day.

Providing children nutritious meals is an attempt to tackle the problem of stunting –
impaired growth – that afflicts 466 lakh Indians under the age of five. A third of all the world’s children whose height is low for their age are Indian, according to the Global Nutrition Report, 2018. A direct consequence of undernutrition, stunting hinders the cognitive growth of children and leaves them more susceptible to infections and non-communicable diseases.

The Mid Day Meal scheme, launched under the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 1995, aimed to serve every child in a government or government-aided primary school one nutritious meal a day. The scheme also has associated goals: the guarantee of a meal keeps children coming to school, and communal eating promotes tolerance.

Successive governments since then have maintained support for the scheme, raising allocations from Rs 5,835 crores in 2007-’08 to Rs 11,000 crores in 2019-’20.

There have been some grievous lapses in the scheme’s operation. In Bihar, for instance, 23 children died in 2013 after being fed a poisonous mid-day meal. Most recently in West Bengal, an MP visited a high school and witnessed schoolgirls being fed a mid-day meal of rice and salt. But the successes have been encouraging. The scheme has significantly increased school enrollment and student retention rates. Children no longer go hungry, which means they can focus better on what they are learning. It also acts as a safety net, providing children with regular nutrition in areas affected by drought.

Statistics show that Uttar Pradesh would do well to improve the manner in which it operates the mid-day meal scheme. Forty six percent of the state’s children are stunted. In Mirzapur, where the video was shot, one in two children are stunted. Charging Jaiswal with criminal conspiracy for pointing out that the children weren’t receiving a nutritious meal shows that the state has its priorities all wrong. It is attempting to cover up its lapses instead of working to ensure the success of a scheme that is vital to the future of the state’s children.