Mid-day meals in India’s government schools were envisaged to stop hunger from keeping children away from schools and to improve enrolment. Children do come to school and meals get served, but quite often, terrible accidents happen. Sometimes hygiene plays the devil, sometimes adulteration. What caused all the harm earlier this week was reportedly a can of pesticides. Investigating teams of doctors found organophosphorus compounds, mostly found in insecticides, in the meals—plates of rice, soybean and lentils. The lunch killed 27 children—all between age four and 12—at a government school in Chhapra district in Bihar, about 80km from the state capital Patna, whie more than a dozen are still hospitalized.
And as we are reading this, there are more reports of mid-day meals-related hospitalizations in Madhubani, again in Bihar.
Why are children dying of the food that is meant to nourish them and draw them to schools? Groundswell of opinion on mid-day meals seems to suggest a host of wrongs that happen in the name of providing food to children.
Here are some of the most compelling takes on mid-day meals and suggestions to plug the loopholes:
A research paper by Stephanie Bonds from the University of California, Berkeley, found the mid-day meals to be extremely successful in raising enrolment rates, particularly among children from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. The effect, the paper says, was more pronounced for those with the least educated parents and lowest economic status.
A good case in point could be Tamil Nadu’s experience with its noon-cum-nutritious meal. The scheme improved enrolment and retention of children in schools and also checked drop-out rates. However, the author argues that with changing educational profiles and nature of problems encountered, the rationale behind the scheme should be re-examined.
Another success story on mid-day meals is that of Akshaya Patra in Bangalore. The article highlights Patra’s highly professional management and operating model, the quality and delivery of services, and innovation of three-tier kitchens based on gravity flow, which may not work in rural areas. The author also points out criticism around Patra’s urban focus and its spending on marketing and fund-raising.
Journalist and author Mrinal Pande, too, observes that debates on mid-day meals in India tend to often be elitist, pointing out instances when entire discussion on the subject was carried out in English, a language largely incomprehensible to the actual stakeholders. She rues the fact that governmental policy-making on rural development largely gets framed in either poverty research labs funded by the United Nations, or developmental studies departments in universities in the US or Europe, far removed from the realities on the ground, bringing forth cosmetic measures instead.
While policymaking happens in ivory towers, senior research fellow and director of the Accountability Initiative, Yamini Aiyar, points out serious lack of accountability in the implementation on the ground, especially in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The most disturbing outcome reported has been the reduction in the quantum of food served to students or simply not serving meals. In many schools in Uttar Pradesh, Aiyar’s Accountability Initiative found that the amount of food given was much lower than required by the government guidelines; many schools in Bihar didn’t even serve meals for months.
The diversion of funds and foodgrains, teachers preparing meals and spending less time in teaching and lack of food hygiene were also flagged in a parliamentary committee report, underlining institutional apathy and lack of concerted efforts in the implementation of the mid-day meal scheme.
An Indian Statistical Institute survey also indicates increase in primary school enrolment, with the largest and most robust increase coming from grades 1 and 2. Enrolment in grades 4 and 5 remained considerably less responsive to the scheme, suggesting that though effective at encouraging early school enrolment, the scheme may be less effective at retaining students or encouraging re-enrolment in upper primary school. A worrying observation was on the mid-day meal’s impact on learning: the report cites anecdotal evidence that the administration of mid-day meals distracts from teaching.
Aiyar again argues that delivery of mid-day meals is hampered by a host of reasons—from non-availability of foodgrains to the absence of kitchen stores and cooks.
Another research paper suggests that the delivery of mid-day meal scheme may be improved by partnering with private entities and non-government organizations (NGOs) and by including chikki, sukhdi, fortified nutrition bar, and fruit in the weekly menu. This, he argues, will not only complement nutritional intake, but offer safety and variety and, by reducing the distribution time, may offer more contact time between students and teachers for studies.
Economist Amartya Sen has opposed proposals to serve biscuits and pre-packaged food to pre-school children questioning its nutritional value.
Despite all the flaws, a report by Pratichi (India) Trust says that the way to go on mid-day meals is forward and not backward. The report argues that the possibilities of this programme far outweigh the problems involved in its operation. One of the highlights of the report has been the tremendous impact of mid-day meals on parental aspiration of acquiring education for their children.
Teachers such as Shweta Sharma from Jharkhand agree. While the primary school teacher is anguished at what happened in Bihar this week, she attests to the gains of mid-day meals in convincing parents to send their children to school. Despite the limited resources and absence of supervision, a clear chain of responsibility and accountability among teachers and the community will bring about accountability.