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What it takes to deliver midday meal

18 Comments
Aug 15, 2013 | From the print edition

Twenty-three children died in Bihar after consuming adulterated food served under the Mid Day Meal Scheme. Since then eight more states have reported incidents of food poisoning caused by midday meals, putting a big question mark on the scheme's implementation. SUNITA NARAIN suggests ways to revive this critical scheme

image The tragic loss of 23 young lives because of contaminated food in a Bihar school is unacceptable. But it is also a fact that the Mid Day Meal Scheme, under which cooked food is compulsorily provided to children in government schools, is too important and critical to give up on. The only questions that matter are: why does the scheme not work as well as it should and what can be done to fix it?

The answers are complicated. Providing nutritious food to children in schools helps address two key problems; hunger and education. Progressive political leaders found the answers in their states. In 1982, M G Ramachandran, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, set up the nutritious meal programme. It is legendary that he took deep interest in the working of the scheme. Former district officials will tell you of his surprise trips to schools and his fury if anything was found out of order. This was top priority, so it worked.

In the mid-1990s, the Central government adopted these ideas coming from different states and framed a national midday meal scheme. But nothing much happened. In 2001, the Supreme Court directed all governments to provide cooked food to all children in primary schools. Since then the scheme has evolved. The Central government agreed to provide free grain (rice and wheat) and funding for transport, cooking cost and recently even an honorarium for the cook. The state government is required to top up this funding; pay for vegetables and pulses; provide infrastructure in schools and manage affairs.

Be in no doubt that this is a big and complex affair. It is estimated that some 117 million children studying up to standard 8 are fed cooked meals every day in some 1.26 million schools and other such centres. The scheme, according to government figures, provides employment to some 2.6 million cooks and helpers. The operations are complicated. Money comes from the Centre in four instalments to states; it then reaches districts and individual schools based on enrolment, off-take and spending. Grain is procured from the storehouse of the Food Corporation of India, transported to districts and then to schools. There are detailed guidelines on how this will work and who will oversee it and even taste the food before serving. It would be difficult to find a parallel in the world for the scale and deployment under this scheme.

But the question remains. Children died in Bihar. There is evidence from many other places that food is not hygienic or nutritious. More seriously, persistent malnutrition continues to shame the country. So what is wrong?

Let me point out the directions in which we should not look for answers. One, we should not look for more schemes or new schemes to replace the old. Two, we should not stop cooking food and replace it with what is considered to be more feasible to supply—biscuits and packaged food that comes from large and small corporates. There is a big push for this. It is not surprising since many eye the Rs 10,000 crore annual budget for meals under the scheme.

The solution is to get down to fixing what is broken. First, focus on what is now called old-fashioned governance, which prioritised the deliverables and then obsessed about how it was being done. It is clear from the states where the programme is working successfully that it requires attention to detail; it needs involvement of those placed the highest in the land—surprise visits, inspections and reports. This will send the signal to the system—however much in disrepair—that food for children is priority.

This also means that state governments—ministers and chief ministers—must have greater reputational advantage of getting the delivery right. In the current system nobody gets the kudos for doing it well, but everybody is running away from the blame.

Second, focus on the paraphernalia of delivery. We put every conceivable scheme in the hands of the hapless (and now increasingly corrupt) local panchayats—each sarpanch manages some 80 different accounts and some 150 different schemes. But there is absolutely no effort to invest in the management support functions of these bodies. If we believe—as we must—that the best institutions for governance are communities then it is time to fix their office. Stop thinking that it is low-cost and voluntary. Management takes money and people. Invest there.

Third, focus on money itself so that we can achieve the change we desire. The Central government pays close to Rs 3 for each primary school child and a little more than Rs 4 for older kids. This is in addition to transport costs (at 2006 rates) and Rs 1,000 per month for cooks and helpers. In Tamil Nadu, the midday meal organiser gets Rs 7,000 per month and the cook and helper are paid Rs 5,000 each. Clearly, this is what it takes. Instead, we short-change our programmes. This is also because we have inefficient delivery and we then have to spread what is available so thinly that it does not really make a difference.

It is ironical that two decades after Rajiv Gandhi’s famous and oft-quoted statement that out of every Rs 1 spent on development only 15 paisa reaches the poor, we know nothing more about where it goes and why. Instead, all we have done is to create new schemes. Not just every new government but every new minister now wants his or her own programme. All driven from the top, while the bottom is hollowed out.

AddThis

I agree with you. I hope someone in the top is reading this. The scheme is good; the management isn't! Hopefully, we don't see more deaths before the management starts looking into and making required decisions instead of launching new schemes which are uncalled for!

29 July 2013
Posted by
Nita Shashidharan

I think the fundamental problem lies in the positioning of the programme. Community for whom the scheme is meant for has never been involved in the monitoring and management of the programme. They are always at the recipient end. They have no say in the overall implementation of the programme. If the villagers are given the responsibility of monitoring the programme with sincere efforts from Govt. there is no point of failure of the scheme. If the villagers can monitor these programmes through their gram sabha and people involved in the execution are accountable to Gram Sabha then most of the problems will be solved at the grassroot only. It will also strengthen the grass root governance also what Gandhiji has taught us several years ago but we used to forget the good things very quickly as per our convenience.

29 July 2013
Posted by
Sukanta Sarkar

In the defense organization where I served, every meal prepared in the mess for serving personnel is tasted by the officer on duty, well before meal time.

I am sure there must be such procedure in the MDM system of the HR ministry. It is possible that such a routine is not followed by (the mostly) indifferent staff?

Have a look at the MDM website. All features of the site relate to budget and monetary aspects of the scheme. I wrote to the new MOS - "In your tenure can you please make the HRD ministry’s MDM website relate much better to the human aspect?" No response, of course.

Tragic incidents will continue to take place, while the website continues to offer, at best, bland / cold / hard facts transferred verbatim from the paper files at your ministry. Achievements would get recorded, and these unfortunate incidents will be found in only news archives.

Utterly saddened....

29 July 2013
Posted by
Swarna

Quality of food in Mid day meal in our village school, where my mother happens to be teacher, is so good that even teachers, who don't bring their tiffin, eat in school only. Mid day meal is run by the parents teachers committee. While most parents are illiterate or barely literate, they do know the difference between good food and bad food. This has not always been the case though.

29 July 2013
Posted by
Kumar

Interesting. Where is this school? And why does it work here and not in other places. Tell us more. Good to learn about these experiences and to see how they can be replicated

30 July 2013


Posted by
Sunita Narain

I too have same story to tell about the school in our village in kerala. The noon meal program is under supervision of parents and teachers association. There whole community takes interest in quality of food made for the students. The teachers too have the same food. If the parents are aware that it is every child's right to get clean, nutritious food,their monitoring can ensure the quality of food.

2 August 2013
Posted by
Swathy

A wonderful coverage of the MDM issue by your esteemed journal. In my view beyond what you have written in this learned editorial the country has two kinds of dangerous people living and operating in it. Their number is small but their effectiveness is very high. They are old and new breed of greedy money makers-trying always to make fast buck by hook or crook. They can go to any extent. The other species are the power hungry low quality politicians trying to reach the seat of governance once again by hook or crook. Their ideology is similar to 'there is nothing wrong in love and war'. Poisoning the innocent children for monetary as well as financial gains in whatever way is a common game plan-nothing wrong in making money. Those who are making laws to protect themselves on the issue of RTI and changes in election laws to continue with their capturing political power are the types. Transparency, openness, democratic values and Humanitarian considerations are perhaps not taught in the schools nor practiced in the society these days. MDM has also gone into that low mentality low morality lane.

5 August 2013
Posted by
Dr.V.N.Sharma

As pointed out correctly by CSE, Mid day Meal scheme requires overall change in Administrative and Financial aspect to be care off at per present cost of food articles including salaries to the workers is to be paid. Financial aspect is more important for any scheme to be implemented properly.

It further requires that quality of food to be supplied to be checked by the state Govt. The State Govt. Labs are having poor working conditions/ infrastructure, hence only alternate remedy that class teachers/ Principal also be directed to take free Mid day Meal along with students. Further some PTA may also be involved in it .Govt. also think to involve reputed NGO's like CSE in the Mid day meal scheme. This will help in improving the quality of food supplied under mid day meal scheme

5 August 2013
Posted by
Satya Prakash

I am associated with a middle school in my neighbourhood in Ranchi on my capacity as voluntary part-time teacher. Here too mid day meal is running successfully.Main reason for the success is the involvement of the school teachers. Two teachers are assigned to manage the meal on weekly basis.The cooks i.e. the Saraswati Bahini ladies have to be mother of at least one current student.

However, what pinches is not getting the food cooked and serve but the paper work associated to generate report for the State Education department.This seriously encroaches upon the available academic time of the teachers and the school Head Mistress.
A major issue is erratic release of funds inclusive of remuneration of the Saraswati Vahini cooks. Often it is delayed by over 8-10 months. Situation has become more complex with current restriction of subsidized cooking gas supply. As against our monthly need of about 7-8 cylinders for cooking meal for about 400 kids,the current supply restricted to 9 cylinders per year. Consequently, the school is now compelled to use coal as the main fuel,adding to extra managing and storage load.

Centralized kitchen as operated by ISKON in Bangalore,looks to be a good solution for MDM scheme at least in urban areas. Pending that,timely release of payments,increasing quota of gas supply and simplification of record keeping system will go long way in running the scheme effectively.

5 August 2013
Posted by
Dr.S. mazumdar

Very important points brought out, Sir. But the reason your LPG, Budgets and salaries are late is that people responsible for those things are not accountable except perhaps to some politician or minister who is making moolah out of the whole thing. MDM management could be handed over to NGOs like Akshay Patra wherever feasible and generous financial support provided. This would make the harassed teachers free to teach, which is their job. But the stakes are too high to keep the politicians out, just like in BCCI. No?

6 August 2013
Posted by
Vinay Tandon

Mam -sorry for crossposting -could you please make a article about solar panel production pollution and its management in India..Also about producer responsibility in recycling solar panels like that of Electronic products recyclling...Thanking you

5 August 2013
Posted by
Kumar

In my village I noticed that whatever people talk or think about any given scheme is largely pessimistic and hopeless. They're the victim of negative publicity of the schemes. Because of passive mindset they too starts taking the undue advantages of the schemes. By your statics that Gram Panchayats are overloaded, it naturaly implies that man power involved in carrying these schemes are forced to work unwillingly. This is the reason which provokes havoc like in Bihar Midday Meal. I believe government should advertise the intention, willingness and commitment of any ambitious schemes enthusiastically so that people associated and benefited with it can work with greater commitment, accountability and responsibility. Thanks JV

6 August 2013
Posted by
Jitendra Rajaram

Critically important as the MDM is, its continuance and improvement is even more important. Point taken. What is SO encouraging to see in this Editorial is that for once it is stressed that "the paraphernalia of delivery" is an issue that needs attention!

What to talk of Panchayat offices, most government departments are running on chronic staff shortages, decrepit equipment and very little or NO maintenance funds. Add to this the total absence of incentives for good work, the arbitrary transfers and postings especially of good and honest workers / officers and so on. Are we then surprised at the delivery system we have?

On the other hand, Government officers expect NGOs to work for free. While there are many small and very small windows where local NGOs could get government money under various schemes, there is virtually no support for salaries, medical and such related expenditure. Yet NGOs are expected to have miraculous delivery standards! Is it any wonder that most NGOs have to fudge to stay alive?

Most of these things remain "hidden" until a tragedy like in Bihar MDM scheme strikes.

6 August 2013
Posted by
Vinay Tandon

It seems to me that the author does not know the existence of an organisation called Akshay Patra that is delivering high quality cooked meals to 15 lakh children in many states in India. It is an initiative of ISKCON, Bengaluru, and has industrial scale kitchens. One should ask the author why she has not mentioned this effort.

Namaste
Ashok Chowgule
Goa, India,

6 August 2013
Posted by
Ashok Chowgule

In Bihar MDM appear to have gone now to planned and intentional conspiracy by some active group of people, naturally not very soft to the current regime and aiming to get to power by poisoning of Hand water pumps used by School children and breaking of school stores where raw MDM materials are stored to mix poisonous material. It is a conspiracy to create anarchy and chaos so that the State leaves its major activity of administering, development and flood relief and get the State machinary to man Hand pumps and school buildings. If this analysis is partially or fully correct then all the talk of correcting flaws in MDM will bear no fruit.

6 August 2013
Posted by
Dr.V.N.Sharma

Its a nice article / review. Its very sad & heat crunching to know about the little once who died. May God grant them peace. Facts & figures are mind blowing.

But can we not see that we have success stories. The Akshya Partha program here (Dharwad, Karnataka) is doing great work. I have never come across any issue or problem. If it can work in one place it surely can work else were. PPP is the key, I feel. Local community involvement & third party audit will ensure that the same runs without any problem.

I suggest people should visit the local kitchen of Akshya Partha & see for themselves the processes & take back the learning.

Few years ago there was an issue of rates, quality of food etc, however when a report was bought out by 3rd party on the same - the news & discussion stopped.

Instead of a blame game, its better we look forward & learn & promise our-self's that no such indecent happens yet again.

God Bless!
Hemal

6 August 2013
Posted by
Hemal Desai

With a view to prevent recurrence of the tragedy that took place in Bihar and to augment the provisions to ensure healthy mid-day mill to school children, it is pertinent to involve the local community on continuous basis.

A body of parents whose children/ wards are studying in the school needs to be formed. Members of this body may take turn to visit the local school every day to see and ensure quality of food items, their proper storage, adequacy and cleanliness of utensils, quality of cooking,etc. On account of any discrepancy, the matter to be immediately taken up with the authorities concerned and in case of unacceptable conditions, the meal for the day may be stopped to avoid any untoward incidence.

This arrangement will be effective because the parents will take due care, the cook and others managing the cooking system will pay heed to the points brought out by the parent's body as they all are locals and in most cases well acquainted with each other.It will have to be made mandatory for the school principal to pay heed to the suggestions/ objections of the parent's body.

It is better to take a preventive course than to take recourse to incriminating the concerned people when the incidence has already taken place.

7 August 2013
Posted by
Ramanuj

The midday meal in schools should stop immediately. It not only disturbing the teaching process in schools but, more to it devastated the eduction of a generation as a whole.It is a scheme derived and running out of mere politics and only aim of it is to create vote banks.

Pulin Kalita,Guwahati

8 August 2013
Posted by
Pulin Kalita

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