The salt and roti midday meal at Shiur government primary school in rural Uttar Pradesh, which momentarily caught the attention of the national media and its audience last onth, is a symptom of a far larger problem with schools education across the country. However, the Uttar Pradesh state administrations’ scattershot response – arresting the local whistleblower, filing criminal charges against the journalist, Pawan Jaiswal, who recorded the video, stopping the cook’s pay and suspending schoolteachers and block education officials – is a reflection of its incompetence and moral corruption.

It was not the first time that children in Shiur’s primary school had not got the type of meal that they were entitled to. And it is unlikely that Shiur’s school is the only school in Uttar Pradesh or elsewhere in India where this has happened. Yet in a country where the well-to-do are mostly unmoved by extreme poverty and massive wealth disparities news of the state’s failure to provide poor children a midday meal has the power to evoke emotional, even visceral responses.

This is perhaps because the school midday meal is a flagship countrywide government programme, funded primarily through Central government transfers in poorer states, and credited with increasing school enrolment levels exponentially. More children in school, is generally believed to be a good thing. And the better off in India comfort themselves that going to school makes everyone equal.

Staff strength

A state’s ability to serve a school meal is only one measure of how its school system is run and if its children are well served. It is, however, a simple way of signaling how much or how little the government, the education administration and the school value the children they are responsible for. Shiur’s salt and roti meal would suggest that the Uttar Pradesh’s education establishment does not value the children very much.

Other things about the Shiur school confirm this; for example, the teachers.

At present the school, which runs from class 1 to class 5, has around 95 students. This entitles the school to three full-time teachers under government rules that, somewhat absurdly, base teacher numbers on the total student enrolment and not the number of classes the students are divided into.

Until 2017, the Shiur school had just two teachers – one a permanent state employee and the other a “shiksha karmi” or contract teacher. Since then it has got a third teacher – who was referred to in news reports as the “teacher incharge” or “head teacher/headmaster in charge”, Murari Lal. The school cook had named him as the person responsible for the lack of supplies and he was been suspended.

But Murari Lal was only standing in for the school’s designated “head teacher” Radha Devi, who is the permanent teacher on the rolls since before 2017. Radha Devi, who has also now been suspended, rarely attended school. So, until Murari Lal was appointed, the school effectively had just one teacher. With both Murari Lal and the mostly absent Radha Devi suspended, the school again has just one teacher for some 95 children in five classes. It does, however, have a complete complement of midday meal staff – a cook and a helper.

Stretched thin

A well-educated, perfectly trained, conscientious, even inspired, teacher would find it impossible to create learning activities for 95 mixed age group children and keep them involved all at one go. It is hard to imagine what or how students learn in schools like Shiur’s Primary School, where teachers (likely poorly educated and/or with fake qualifications) are either absent or careless of their students needs. And it is only in school that the children are likely to learn to read and write, for the vast majority of their parents and families are illiterate. According to the latest census, literacy in Shiur is around 32%.

There are countless Shiurs and Shiur primary schools across the country, and a significant number of them are in Uttar Pradesh. This is why, unusually for a very poor state, the majority of Uttar Pradesh’s elementary school children (classes 1 to 8) are in private schools. As in the richer Indian states, only the very poorest in Uttar Pradesh send their children to government schools.

Government schools in Uttar Pradesh, with very few exceptions, are a desolation – abandoned by the administrators and the teachers paid to run them, and hence by students. The ones that have students are often Dickensian in their functioning.

A government intent on actually educating children would make schools like these its priority; hiring and posting the best and most committed teachers to their worst schools and ensuring they want for nothing. But Shiur is an illustration of an administration unconcerned that it runs schools that are schools only in name.

Absenteeism the rule

Which is why the administration cannot make Radha Devi, the permanent absent teacher attend school. Like the school that has the misfortune to have her as a teacher, Radha Devi, is not the exception, but the rule in Uttar Pradesh. So much the rule that the all-powerful chief minister, at a teachers’ day event on Wednesday, said women (almost 50% of primary school teachers in the state) make good teachers, “if they go to school regularly”. Officials sitting alongside tittered.

It’s a pity that media and public attention, is so momentary and so narrowly focused on what is visible in a short video. It is a terrible thing that poor children, despite the law and available resources, are not guaranteed a decent school lunch. But its far worse, that they don’t really have what amounts to a school.

The midday meal scheme may have increased school enrolments – allowing Uttar Pradesh and India to boast of ever-increasing numbers of children in school. But the mid-day meal does not ensure that children are schooled. A bare bones building, one poorly educated teacher (or even three) for 95 children is not a school. The children may get the occasional lunch, but they will not get an education.