The school bell rings at noon, its sound reverberating down the corridors. Soon there is the shuffling of feet, the hurried closing of books and the hasty putting away of pencils and rulers. Chairs creak; floor mats are adjusted in the mud brick courtyard. The village school rearranges itself in neat rows, waiting patiently in the afternoon sun. It is time for the mid day meal.
The Midday Meal Scheme is a school meal programme of the Government of India designed to improve the nutritional status of school-age children nationwide. Under this programme, free lunches are provided, according to a stipulated nutritional standard, to students of primary and upper primary classes in 1,265,000 schools and Education Guarantee Scheme centers, across the country. These schools range from government schools to those aided by the government, from centers of learning under the Education Guarantee Scheme to madrasas and maqtabas under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
Reaching out to 120,000,000 school children across villages and little known towns, bustling slums and silent hamlets, this is the largest programme of its kind in the world.
Introduced with "a view to enhancing enrollment, retention and attendance and simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children", the Mid Day Meal Scheme is a pathway to transfer nourishment to India's poorest school children. It incentivizes the prospect of attending school, augments learning outcomes and acts as a safety net in times of food insecurity- as has been corroborated by academic literature.
This paper explores the problems in implementation of the mid day meal scheme, against the backdrop of the scheme's positive impact on school students across the country. It further sheds light on the apathy of several state governments who have chosen to discontinue this scheme, rather than strengthening its deficiencies. In the midst of all these logistical inefficiencies and political to and fro, India's school children miss out on yet another mid day meal, as the school bell rings at noon.Impact
The positive impact of the Mid Day Meal Scheme has been well documented in the context of different dimensions, in academic literature. According to the study conducted by Afridi, Barooah and Somanathan in 2013 on the impact of school meals on learning outcomes:
"There are three possible mechanisms by which school meals can improve learning outcomes. First, school meals can act as an incentive for parents to send their children to school more regularly by implicitly reducing the cost of schooling (Schultz, 2004; Vermeersch and Kremer, 2004; and Afridi, 2011). Regular attendance at school can potentially lead to better educational outcomes. Second, school meals can improve the nutritional status of the child which, in turn, can affect her long-term cognitive ability (Behrman and Lavy, 1994; Glewwe, Jacoby and King, 1999). Third, school meals can impact learning outcomes by improving attention and classroom participation of children (Politt et al., 1981; Murphy et al., 1998, Gajre et al. 2008, Sigman et al., 1989; Kleinman et al., 1998), particularly in contexts where there is 'classroom hunger'."
In their study of 18 randomly Sarvodaya Vidyalayas out of a total 185 such schools managed by the Directorate of Educatuon (DoE) in New Delhi, maze puzzles were given to the students during regular school hours to test concentration and effort. This study has concluded that the school students who were administered the Mid May Meal Scheme (that is the treatment group) displayed greater concentration and more focus than the students in the control group.
Another study by Afridi suggests that the programme has "reduced the daily protein deficiency of a primary-school student by 100 percent, the calorie deficiency by almost 30 percent and the daily iron deficiency by nearly 10 percent".
Further the impact of the mid day meal scheme as a safety net against shocks has been well documented in the working paper by Singh, Park and Dercon titled "School Meals as a Safety Net: An Evaluation of the Mid Day Meal Scheme in India". Using data from the state of Andhra Pradesh, this paper focuses on the period 2001-2007, one which witnessed severe drought in several parts of the state, especially in the years 2002-03.
By comparing the nutritional status of children across various parameters including weight-for-age and height-for-age, this study concludes that the cushioning effects of the Mid Day Meal Scheme are noteworthy:
"These results also seem to make intuitive sense. The children in drought stricken areas see a decline in nutritional intake impacting their health negatively, but the Mid Day Meal Scheme in these situations acts as a safety net imperative for this previous health shock, at least for young children just entering school"
These results are significant as they highlight the precarious nature of child nutrition in agricultural India. Largely dependent on rainfall, Indian agriculture is often prone to shocks which lead to a decline in household income and availability of nutrients. In this context, the health outcomes of children tend to be adversely affected, manifesting in stunting, anemia and undernourishment. At this juncture, the Mid Day Meal plays a crucial role, ensuring a minimum level of nutrition, in the face of community wide food insecurity.
India is home to the largest number of under nourished children in the world- out of every 5 Indian children, 2 are undernourished. The prevalence of under nourishment in India's children is higher than the corresponding statistics from Sub-Saharan Africa. In the face of such figures, the role of the Mid Day Meal Scheme in creating avenues for child nutrition cannot be underestimated. However, the implementation of the Mid Day Meal Scheme, the largest food assistance programme in the world, remains ridden with problems and logistical obstacles.
The implementation of the Mid Day Meal Scheme faces several challenges in different stages of the supply chain. Ranging from non delivery of food supplies to non-compliance with nutritional norms, from substandard quality food being doled out to rampant corruption, the problems run deep into the system and remain inextricably linked to its operation.
According to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in 2015:
"The irregular diversion or theft of food grains, submission of inflated transportation costs, fudging of data pertaining to supply of food grains pointed to widespread leakages leading to losses and misappropriations" in the Mid Day Meal Scheme was criticized extensively."
In another criticism of the states, the CAG report shone the spotlight on the "mechanism" for calculating number of school children covered under the scheme, terming it "seriously compromised". "The percentage of actual number of children availing MDM as gathered from different sources was consistently lower than that furnished by the states to the Ministry (MHRD) for claiming cost of food grains and cooking cost," it observed.
Such observations point to a gross over exaggeration of figures by the state governments to attract greater funding, which in no way benefits the actual targets of the programme: the students.
Yamini Aiyar, Director of the Accountability Initiative, in her investigation of the MDMS concluded that the inefficiencies were largely on account of too many layers of governance operating in the scheme's implementation. According to her report: "Too many layers of government were involved in the scheme, resulting in poor information, coordination and monitoring."
The inadequacy of nutritional intake in the mid day meals served across schools in India remains another problem in the execution of this scheme. According to the CAG Report 2015,
"The prescribed nutrition to children was not provided in test checked schools in at least nine states. In Delhi, 1876 of the 2102 samples tested by an agency failed to meet the prescribed nutrition standards." Specifically, 97 percent of the food samples served in Mumbai between 2010-2015 failed to meet the nutritional standards.
The situation is worsened with incidents of worms, lizards and rats being found in the food served to the school students. In May 2017, 8 children in a government school in Madhya Pradesh were rushed to hospital after a dead lizard was found in the Mid Day Meal consumed by them. In another tragic incident, in 2013, 23 school children died and dozens more fell in the village of Dharmashati Gandaman in Bihar, after eating a Mid Day Meal contaminated with pesticide. The instances are many and are widespread, affecting the health outcomes of children and lowering the implicit faith of their families in the scheme.Discontinuing the Scheme
Against the backdrop of these hurdles in the process, comes the issue of non delivery of food grains.
Consider the case of Jammu and Kashmir, a state in whose 12,500 government schools Mid Day Meals have virtually been stopped due to the non-availability of funds from the Central Government since December 2016. This blatant discontinuing of the scheme takes place at a time when the liabilities on account of this Scheme in the Jammu region have crossed the 25 crore rupees mark.
According to a report published by the Daily Excelsior:
"Official sources told the Excelsior that since January this year, the concerned Chief Education Officers did not provide any funds to the Government schools in their respective districts on account of Mid Day Meals Scheme. The teachers, in-charge Mid Day Meals in schools, after stoppage of funds continued providing food to the children from their own resources and pocket for some time. Then they started lifting ration on credit from the shops of the area. But in view of non-payment to the traders for couple of months, the traders also refused to continue the supply of ration/ edible oil and the other necessary supply to the schools on credit basis."
Moreover, the Mid Day Meal Scheme for students' up to Class VIII in government and government aided schools in Punjab are on the precipice of collapse as the state has not received funds for over 2 months now. The backlog of funds is nearly 50 crone rupees as of November 2017.
According to a report by The Times of India, one of the teachers employed at the Barnala School, Punjab claimed: "The funds for feeding students up to class VIII were last distributed in August. No funds have been released in September, October and November. Till now, we were arranging ration on our own and now shopkeepers have declined to give us items on credit. Under such circumstances, we have decided to discontinue the scheme till the funds are released."
This unfortunate turn of events has not left Madhya Pradesh unaffected either. The small village school in Karulihai, Madhya Pradesh remains in wait of food supplies from the government. They have been waiting for a long time. The last time they received rations was in November 2013.
The instances of non delivery of food grains and the discontinuing of the scheme across several states in India highlight the extent to which inefficiencies and inadequacies plague the Mid Day Meal Scheme. They throw light on the indifference of the government in ensuring a basic level of nutrition for its youngest citizens. These instances embody of the apathy of the state machinery and the complete lack of an efficient monitoring scheme. They exemplify corruption that is endemic to the system and which ultimately affects the educational outcomes of the true beneficiaries of this scheme.Conclusion
The impact of the Mid Day Meal Scheme on the nutritional status and educational outcomes of India's school children is undeniable. In terms of augmenting learning abilities, increasing school enrollment and improving health conditions of the children, the scheme is ingenious in its restructuring of incentives and its wide appeal.
However, the administration of this scheme is riddled with several challenges that severely impede its progress. The ultimate obstacle in the entire process however remains the non continuance of the scheme in several states due to the lack of funds, inefficient infrastructure and obstacles along the supply chain. Discontinuing such a scheme in a school or in several schools in a state can have a severely detrimental impact on its students, exposing them to the shocks of food insecurity and lower immunity levels.
Against such a backdrop, it is imperative to strengthen the scheme and mend its faults- to ensure healthier food and cleaner kitchens, to secure adequate rations and implement an effective monitoring system- rather than giving up not the scheme altogether. The Mid Day Meal Scheme hinges on the hopes of India's million school children and they have been let down too often. It is time to change that.REFERENCES
Singh, A., Park, A. and Dercon, S. (2014). School Meals as a Safety Net: An Evaluation of the Midday Meal Scheme in India. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 62(2), pp.275-306.
Lentz-Marino, E. and Lentz-Marino, E. (2017). Problems With Mid Day Meal Scheme in India - BORGEN. [online] BORGEN. Available at: http://www.borgenmagazine.com/problems-mid-day-meal-scheme-india/
Indiatoday.intoday.in. (2017). Midday meal scheme of UPA government has been ineffective: CAG. [online] Available at: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/cag-lets-mid-day-meal-out-of-bag/1/551061.html
heigc.org. (2017). Cite a Website - Cite This For Me. [online] Available at: https://www.theigc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Afridi-Et-Al-2013-Working-Paper1.pdf
Jammu Kashmir Latest News | Tourism | Breaking News J&K. (2017). Mid Day Meal Scheme at verge of closure in 12,500 Govt schools. [online] Available at: http://www.dailyexcelsior.com/mid-day-meal-scheme-at-verge-of-closure-in-12500-govt-schools/
Kamal, N. (2017). No more mid-day meals in schools? - Times of India. [online] The Times of India. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chandigarh/no-more-mid-day-meals-in-schools/articleshow/61635106.cms [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].