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A file photo of children at a government school in Chhapra. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of children at a government school in Chhapra. Photo: Reuters

Addressing deficiencies in public systems

The mid-day scheme is underpinned by a rent-seeking chain that keeps all the major stakeholders satisfied

The mid-day meal (MDM) tragedy in Chhapra once again focuses attention on the low-level equilibrium that our public systems are trapped in.

Consider these facts. Apart from rice, which has to be collected from the local ration shop, the MDM programme allocates each primary and upper-primary child Rs3.11 and Rs4.65, respectively to purchase pulses, vegetables, oils, salt and condiments, fuel, and manage the entire logistics. The programme also provides each school with a basic kitchen shed and a cook-cum-helper for 25 students, with an additional person for each 100 students. The helper’s compensation was recently raised from Rs1,000 to Rs1,500 a month. The programme mandates that children in upper primary schools be provided 30gm of pulses, 75gm of vegetables, and 7.5gm of oil.

Given the steep rise in prices in recent years, it is difficult to provide meals of even barely acceptable quality anywhere in the country with the prevailing allocation. This would remain so even with the modest recent increase in allocation and with the cheapest wholesale purchase of materials, even when made on a massive scale. At a time when the employment guarantee scheme provides Rs100-150 per day, it is very difficult to get people to work for even the increased amount. Not to speak of the several other incidental expenses such as transport and problems associated with the reliable supply of provisions and their safe storage, water supply, and so on, all of which are sorely deficient in most schools. Inordinate delays in reimbursement, common across the country, only exacerbate the woes of the headmaster.

But for a programme of its immense scale, except for the occasional tragedies such as the recent one, the MDM scheme runs without much apparent trouble. A closer analysis reveals that this equilibrium is underpinned by a rent-seeking chain that keeps all the major stakeholders satisfied.

Central to this process is the manipulation of daily attendance reported from each school. Since the school claims MDM reimbursement based on the daily attendance, their incentives are aligned towards boosting them. It is common practice for schools to show the enrolment figure itself as the attendance for all the days of a school year.

The differential between the amount claimed and the actual attendance-based claim is used to cover the additional expenditure incurred as well as grease the palms of people all along the chain. Only the scale of manipulation varies across schools. Governments, with limited fiscal space to provide additional resources, prefer the status quo.

Permissive supervision maintains the equilibrium. It keeps school headmasters and unions from revolting, and sustains the rent-seeking chain that involves local political leaders and the education bureaucracy.

Even honest and committed school administrators are left with no choice but to condone the practice of manipulating attendance figures so as to make ends meet. There are of course a handful of exceptional schools, where teachers have been resourceful and lucky enough to manage voluntary contributions from local people and elsewhere, and manage the programme within the allocated budget. But that is no way to run a programme for 120 million children.

Initiatives to reliably capture attendance using technologies such as mobile phones, and efforts to involve local self-help groups in managing the programme and social audits of its implementation, while undoubtedly desirable, cannot gloss over fundamental inadequacies.

Similar equilibriums, widespread across public systems, can be effectively addressed only if we go beyond simplified narratives of personal apathy and venality and address systemic deficiencies.

Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views.

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