Malnutrition and stunting among Bihar’s children could rise due to mid-day meals being stopped ever since COVID-19 struck
The future of millions of children in Bihar is at stake: Mid-day meals (MDM) have not been served ever since government primary schools and anganwadi centres closed down in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. With no other way to fulfil the nutritional requirements of children, the spectre of stunting and being underweight hangs over millions of underprivileged children in the state.
Take the case of Panchamarhiya Chowk village of Sitamarhi district. More than 80 per cent of its population is engaged in agriculture. These farmers thus depend entirely on seasonal income and hardly have any monthly income.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, when migrant workers returned to the village, they found no jobs. Consequently, their condition and that of their children deteriorated.
“We send our children to primary school to eat at least one good meal per day,” Pintu Kumar, a daily wage labourer told this reporter.
He added, “It is not that we just want our kids to have a meal but also want better education for our kids. It is just that ensuring meals two times a day in the off-season is very difficult.”
“For the last six months, our daily meals have been reduced to rice and pickle or chapatti and onion,” said Pintu Kumar. “The struggle is not that we are eating rice and pickle but both our kids have to eat, without pulses or eggs,” he said.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016, 48.3 per cent of children are stunted, 20.8 per cent are wasted and 43.9 per cent are underweight in Bihar.
The state government has specified that the calorific value of a MDM at the upper-primary level should be a minimum of 700 calories and 20 grams of protein. This should be achieved by providing 150 gm of foodgrains (rice / wheat) per child in each school day.
The mandated MDM Guidelines prescribe the following nutritional content to achieve the objectives of the scheme:
|Items||For children of primary classes||For children of upper-primary classes|
|A) Nutritional norms (per child per day)|
|Protein||12 gm||20 gm|
|B) Food norms (per child per day)|
|Foodgrains||100 gm||150 gm|
|Pulses||20 gm||30 gm|
|Vegetables||50 gm||75 gm|
|Oil and fat||5 gm||
|Salt and condiments||According to need||According to need|
According to a 2018 Niti Aayog report, the MDM programme in Bihar has proven to be a substitute rather than a supplement for a meal at home. The MDM became the primary factor for the improvement in the number of enrollment, retention and attendance in government schools.
The food served in MDMs is not entirely up to the benchmark set by the Bihar government but children and parents have very little complaints about that.
The recommended dietary allowances prescribed by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, for a child from 3-12 years must have an intake of 1,060-2,190 kilocalories per day.
“The children like pulao (rice dish) which is served on Monday, eggs on Wednesday and chicken once a month,” Sonu Kumar, an anganwadi teacher in Sitamarhi, said. He added, “The children are always regular.”
The Supreme Court of India took suo motu cognizance of the suspension of MDMs across India due to the pandemic and issued a directive to all state and Union territory governments to provide dry rations to children.
Many governments have begun to give dry rations but reports from Bihar have noted that the government is still to distribute the rations which, it has used to feed people in quarantine.
Researchers have also pointed out that dry rations will not have the same effect as hot cooked meals on school premises.
The Bihar government has ordered the distribution of rations to school children for three months and money through direct benefit transfer to their accounts, or to that of their guardians, in-lieu of the MDM scheme.
According to the order:
Children from Class 1 to 5 will be offered 8 kg of ration and Rs 358 via DBT, calculated on a daily average of 100 grams. Similarly, students from Class 6-8 will be offered 12 kg of ration and Rs 536, calculated on a daily average of 150 grams. Both calculations are for 80 days.
“I have received Rs 2,000 which was due for PM Kisan Samman Nidhi but no money for rations,” Sweta Mishra, whose children study in a government primary school, said. “Some powerful people in the village have got the dry rations like rice, wheat and pulses but not the majority of deserving people like us.”
In 2003-04, cooked meals were introduced in 2,532 schools as a pilot project covering 30 blocks of 10 different districts in Bihar. From January 2005, hot cooked meals were being provided to all the primary schools across the state including different learning centres.
In February 2008, MDMs were extended to the upper-primary level, thus covering all the children from Class I-VIII. The ingredients and the quantity to be supplied in the MDM scheme is as under:-
|Ingredient||Every Day Allocation|
|Rice||100 gm||150 gm|
|Pulse||20 gm||30 gm|
|Vegetable||50 gm||75 gm|
|Oil||5 gm||7.5 gm|
|Salt / Spices||According to requirement|
|Calorie||450 kcal||700 kcal|
|Protein||12 gm||20 gm|
Bihar must take lessons from states such as Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra on how MDM schemes can be used during these difficult times for the benefit of children. Enrollment for some districts had reached more than 90 per cent when it started the scheme. It was a feat that was applauded by the Planning Commission.
On November 28, 2001, the Supreme Court of India had given a landmark direction to the government to provide cooked meals to all children in all government and government-assisted primary schools. The direction was resisted vigorously by state governments initially, but the programme had become almost universal by 2005.
Abhilasha Kumari, child development welfare officer, Sitamarhi, said her team were working to provide rations to children’s fathers through DBT since the government order.
On the question of people not receiving money through DBT, she said: “If they don’t have Aadhar card or bank account or have not linked one to another, it is difficult to pay even deserving people. It needs concerted efforts on the part of people to have Aadhar and bank accounts to avail government welfare schemes.”
She added: “In the past, when we found lacunae in serving cooked meals, the percentage of children attending anganwadi and primary schools decreased significantly.”
Ujjwal Prasad, Patna University sociology professor, said: “The MDM not only works as a food scheme, preventing children from developing malnutrition but also gives an incentive to both children and parents to enrol kids for attending school regularly.”
He added that the MDM scheme took away from underprivileged people, the burden of feeding nutritious food to their children in order for them to study.
However, said Prasad, the eternal question that remained was would the MDM scheme ever be implemented properly to achieve desired results?
This story was reported under the National Foundation of India Fellowship for independent journalists
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.