Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Meal scheme in ‘capability trap’

In a recently published paper, economists Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock and Matt Andrews argue that many developing countries are stuck in a “capability trap" in which the “appearance of development activity masks the lack of functional development activity". India’s experience with implementing the Mid- Day Meal (MDM) Scheme is a good case study on how this capability trap unfolds.

Delivering MDM ought to be a relatively straightforward administrative exercise. Unlike other welfare programmes with more complex eligibility requirements and monitoring systems, MDM is an input driven scheme that requires the administration to make a universal transfer, based on calorie norms determined by guidelines, of foodgrains and money to all government schools. Schools are responsible for the actual implementation—procuring cooking materials, hiring cooks and preparing meals for children. Some states and districts have outsourced implementation to local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) who prepare and deliver cooked meals to schools. Yet, as my colleagues at Accountability Initiative discovered when we began tracking the implementation of the scheme in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, even these routine tasks are often not implemented properly.

Under MDM, districts are an important administrative hub, as they sanction the transfer of money and grains to schools, monitor progress, maintain accounting records and resolve administrative bottlenecks. However, we found in our review that poor management systems, inadequate resources and weak infrastructure make it impossible for the district to perform these functions effectively. For example, in Bihar, the administrative arm responsible for delivering foodgrains runs parallel to the MDM administration. The MDM department has no powers of accountability over the foodgrains administration. So if schools have problems, like grains not arriving on time, all the MDM authorities can do is issue a letter of complaint. So by design, the MDM department cannot be held accountable for ensuring that schools receive their foodgrains.

Even within the MDM administrative structure, management and monitoring mechanisms are weak. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, there are no dedicated officers responsible for monitoring schools at the loc

Bihar has dedicated block-level monitors, but the sanctioning authority rests with the district education officer, for whom MDM is again not a high priority. Lack of adequate financial resources adds to the problem. In one interview, a local official in Uttar Pradesh said that he was unable to monitor schools as he had not received any transport allowance for the year. So, when reports have to be prepared, officers collect information through telephone calls to headmasters.

Given these problems, districts have developed their own strategies for reporting on progress. We found that utilization numbers in district records are calculated based on formulas devised by the district rather than on actual consumption in schools. If you compare school and district records on money transferred, the numbers do not match. So reports, perpetuating the fiction of a functional system, rarely represent reality.

The schools’ experience with implementing MDM is quite different to what district records suggest. Our analysis of foodgrains receipts based on school surveys in Bihar found that for several months in the year, a large number of schools—75% in one district—did not receive enough foodgrains to serve the requisite meals on all school days. We also discovered that salaries for cooks can take anywhere between two and six months to arrive in school bank accounts. The process of fund and grain transfers is so opaque that schools have no prior information on the timing and quantum of foodgrains and money they can expect to receive.

Where information systems have been developed, they have not been well conceived. Uttar Pradesh developed a system to send SMS alerts to headmasters with details of the amount of grain a school ought to receive, but the SMSes were in English and many headmasters complained that they could not read them! Faced with such constraints, schools have developed a range of coping strategies, all of which seriously compromise accountability. In some instances, headmasters entered into credit-based arrangements with local stores. In others, headmasters said that they used their own money and reimbursed themselves once government money arrived. Sadly, the most common coping mechanism reported was reducing the quantum of food given to students or simply not serving meals. We found in our school surveys that schools in Uttar Pradesh serve meals regularly, but the amount of food given is much lower than required by the guidelines, while schools in Bihar go months without serving meals to students.

These capability failures are not unique to the MDM scheme. As we have explored in this series, capability failure is the one common thread that runs through India’s implementation of welfare schemes. To return to the argument made by Pritchett et al, one reason why states remain stuck in the capability trap is that they mimic the forms and structures of successful organizations—in India’s case, the hierarchical, top down bureaucracy that works in the Western world—without creating conditions under which these forms can be successful. It is clear that this mimicry is not yielding results in India. An honest, robust public debate on reforming India’s administrative institutions is the need of the hour.

Yamini Aiyar is director, Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research.With inputs from of the PAISA team at Accountability Initiative, especially Mehjabeen Jagmag and Ram Ratan Jat.

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