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Much of the current debate on the National Food Security Bill has focused on the Public Distribution System. Crucial as this is, the Bill’s vision of food security aims to address wider nutritional concerns including maternal and child nutrition and not just through PDS but through existing programmes such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Performance on these schemes thus merits urgent attention.

Also See | Mid-day Meal : Hopes Belied (PDF)

Let’s take ICDS first, or rather the lack of it. In an overall environment of poor quality data, ICDS stands out for being particularly bad. Reporting on ICDS budgets and expenditures is particularly haphazard and sporadic. Crucially, a significant portion of ICDS funds comes from state contributions that are difficult to ascertain. Even parliamentary questions could not unearth this data. Reports on nutritional status too have similar anomalies making it difficult to track. Undoubtedly, the first step to ensuring ICDS entitlements is to improve the quality of monitoring and information available. But we can glean some broad trends. Data reveals significant deficits in ICDS implementation—shocking for a scheme that has been around since 1975. The programme suffers from a severe human resource capacity gap which requires urgent attention if entitlements are to be provided. Anganwadi centres managed by an Anganwadi worker (AWW) and helper are the mainstay of the ICDS programme. While 84% of India has the required number (sanctioned by the Union government) of operational centres, they are not well staffed: 78% of these have AWWs in position. In states such as Uttarakhand, this goes down to 45%. Existing AWWs are also overworked. When measured on the basis of AWWs-to-enrolled children, on average one Anganwadi worker looks after 33 pre-school children in India. There are extreme variations. Himachal, for instance, has nine children per AWW and UP has 65 children per worker. Of course, in practice, AWWs are handling far fewer children as attendance is not very high; but even if half the enrolled children turn up, the AWW will have difficulties. The human resource deficit is compounded by the fact that AWWs are loaded with non-ICDS duties, and salary and other payments for running the centres are delayed. That ICDS is a disaster is a well-acknowledged truth. Even the Prime Minister has repeatedly talked of ICDS reforms. But precisely what these reforms are remains unclear, and if there is one thing this data shows, it is that nothing short of a radical overhaul is needed.

The MDMS programme has a relatively better track record. Budgetary allocations and expenditures are improving. In 2009-10, a mere 6% MDMS funds remained unspent compared with 20% in 2007-08. Better still, children are being fed. The latest Annual State of Education Report, or ASER, shows that 83% of the schools across the country were serving MDMS meals at the time of the survey. But corruption and quality are serious concerns particularly because of the lack of oversight and monitoring mechanisms. Every day, headlines point to stories of leakage and pilfering. The good news is some states are beginning to innovate with mechanisms to reduce corruption and these hold important lessons. Tamil Nadu (TN) has introduced various innovations to strengthen delivery, including setting monitoring targets for local officials and delivering foodgrains directly to schools. UP, too, seems to be taking steps towards introducing monitoring innovations including the use of mobile phone technologies to ensure that meals are being served in schools.

Monitoring apart, UP’s overall experience with implementing MDMS is interesting. Cooking costs (expenses of ingredients, fuel etc.) account for about 52% share of the MDMS. These costs are shared between the Central government and the states. UP, usually a laggard when it comes to development schemes, increased its cooking cost allocation from Rs3.63 per child per day in 2008-09 to Rs4.20 in 2009-10 to come in second after TN—a leader in implementing MDMS. Interestingly, it also spent 85% of this, and is reported to have provided meals to 83% of its targets up to December 2009—these are calculated on the basis of the number of meals actually served and the numbers planned at the start of the fiscal. Compare this with Bihar which met 59%, and Kerala which achieved 80% of their targets. The reasons for this improved performance and the ground level accuracy of these numbers need further investigation. But recent newspaper reports seem to indicate that the state is beginning to improve implementation by introducing innovative monitoring, including the use of mobile phone technologies.

But the greatest lesson that state experiences afford is that MDMS ought to have greater flexibility to ensure state-specific needs are accounted for and wastage reduced. TN regularly received funds for building kitchen sheds. But it doesn’t need these funds as over 96% (ASER figures) schools already have these sheds. So, this money, which could have been allocated to another state, or a different activity specific to the state, goes unspent. In 2008-09, a mere 13% of kitchen-shed funds were spent. Greater flexibility and greater monitoring with community involvement could go a long way towards improving the programme.

A final word on caste discrimination in MDMS. Proponents of the programme rightly argue that it can play a role in eroding caste discrimination as children of different backgrounds have to share a meal together. But a study by Thorat and Lee of discrimination faced by Dalits tells a depressing tale. About 52% of respondents in Rajasthan, 24% in AP and 36% in TN reported caste discrimination. About 48% reported opposition to Dalit cooks and 31% reported that Dalit children were made to sit apart from dominant caste children at meal times. In some cases, teachers showed favouritism by treating upper caste children preferentially and reserving smaller portions for Dalit children. Shocking for a country that claims to have arrived on the global stage.

(Data collected, analysed by Avani Kapur and Anirvan Chowdhury.)

Yamini Aiyar is a senior research fellow and director of the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research.

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