Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Mid-Day Meal Muddle

As the horrifying news of the mid-day meal tragedy in a government primary school in a village in Saran district near Patna burns the airwaves, I'm reminded of the day I spent at such a school in Samastipur (a district bordering Saran) some two years back. The meal being served to the children that rainy day had seemed anything but edible, even then. A look at the way it was being cooked (picture on the right) convinced me that such a tragedy was just waiting to happen.

My mind also traveled to a conversation I once had with the Director of Primary Education of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD - which has since been trifurcated into three separate Corporations) a few years back. Commenting on the humongous task of ensuring cooked meal that had to be served to nearly a million children in about 1800 primary schools of the MCD every day, with a budget of just over Rs. 3 per meal, she lamented the politics behind the much touted mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) of the government. She also made a telling comment - as per her estimate, she said, only about 30% of all the children coming to her schools actually needed a subsidy for a meal; the others came from families that could well afford to feed their children a more nutritious meal every day. Why then, she asked, was this being imposed on the system?

Introduced in the 1960s by the Tamil Nadu government, the MDMS has now been adopted by nearly all states after a landmark ruling of the Supreme Court in 2001. Sure, the scheme does have several things going for it - it can prevent malnutrition at the bottom of the pyramid, it improves socialization among children belonging to varied castes, and it helps improve school enrollment and attendance. Of these, I find the last argument to be the flawed-one-out: if the meals become a reason for the children to be attending school, does it not give the system an excuse to be complacent about the quality of learning in the school? Does it not detract from the main reason for children to be attending school? Sure enough, I've heard hundreds of teachers over the last few years complain about the fact that administering the MDM leaves them with little time for preparing for their classes. If not the truth, this is certainly a convenient excuse.

And then there's the question of implementing this scheme at such a large scale, making it easy enough fodder for the corrupt and the greedy to make hay many times over. Distribution of contract of the MDM scheme is one of the most corrupt practices in India, given the stakes involved. Several scams have been reported since the scheme got off ground. Only a handful of NGOs, most notably Akshay Patra and ISCKON, have managed to bring in a semblance of quality in the provision of meals to children. Several other NGOs see the scheme as an easy way to rake in some moolah.

The corruption perpetrated by the scheme does not remain on the "supply" side only, it extends to the "demand" side as well. In our work on the field, we've come across hundreds of cases where children are enrolled in schools only to avail the free meal at the middle of the day; they come to school only when it's time for lunch! There are thousands of cases of double enrollment as well, in which the children are enrolled in a private school in addition to the government school. Worse, the Bihar administration has been grappling with cases of "ghost enrollment" - where non existent children have been shown as enrolled in the school so that the school gets additional subsidy for the MDM.

They deserve better!
Surely, our children deserve better. Why can't the schools focus on the task of providing to the children what schools are really meant to provide? Given the appalling learning quality in our schools, it will take a herculean effort for government schools to get their act together on the teaching-learning aspects. Must they then be burdened with the responsibility of providing food, when food for thought is what they ought to be worrying about?