Mid-Day meal : Get creative

What a pathetic spectacle it was to see 23 children dead after having mid-day meal (MDM) in their school in Bihar recently. Notwithstanding the ritualistic political mudslinging, one can sensibly blame it on systemic failure than to an altruist public policy truly in sync with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. But why systems fail our policies and programmes so often and with such impunity? Tragic incidents like this, which are recurrent and frequent too, compel us to introspect where the problem lies; with policy design or its implementation? Else, how can poisonous substance go unchecked and adulterate the food? Disasters of such magnitude happen because the execution of policies often lacks fool proof mechanism and preparedness to meet exigencies. To mitigate probable future disasters can public policy and design meet halfway and innovate effective service design models?

Service design, which applies design’s holistic creative approach of problem solving from planning to execution with innovative use of infrastructure, organisation, products and systems, may be a new concept in policy domain. Nevertheless, it could be a great help in streamlining the process of policy implementation particularly those which may create havoc with inept handling as in the MDM mishap in Bihar this time. Unfortunately, public policies are often driven by political considerations more than professional competence and far sightedness.

The need of public policy and design coming together to enhance efficiency of public services are being argued in many countries. UK Design Council report on ‘Design for Public Good’ emphasises that ‘Given design thinking’s potential to make policy-making more agile and reduce the risk of new policy implementation, it is vital that these approaches continue to be tried. The good news is, this can itself be done with little risk, at low cost on a limited scale.’ Implementing MDM programme with a design approach would have paid off. Not only it would have maintained logistics, supply chain management and designed cost effective, safe and hygienic kitchens, but have also considered risk factors and their remedies.

Sheer enormity of scale makes MDM world’s largest school feeding programme. In the year 2012-2013 the scheme received a central budgetary allocation of Rs 10867.90 crore to feed 12 crore children in approximately 12.65 lakh schools through the country. This policy of ‘social altruism’ reaffirms our commitment towards the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for children. But in developing nations which also suffer from instances of abject poverty, affording cost of education is often a deterrent.

Mexico, South Africa, Bangladesh among others also have policies similar to MDM which relate food and nutrition to education. In Mexico it’s called PROGRESA (Programa de Educación, Salud y Alimentación). Initiated in 1997 it provides cash incentives to rural households on the condition of satisfactory school attendance of their children. The outcome was heartening both in terms of encouraging poor children turning up to school besides the significant impacts on their food consumption. PROGRESA beneficiaries reported higher calorie consumption and a diverse platter which ensured more intakes of fruits, vegetables and meat. Bangladesh’s Food-for-Education programme has also positively impacted children’s participation in school.

It has led to 17.3 percent increase in attendance rate for boys and 16 per cent increase for girls on an average.
South Africa initiated its National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) in 1994. Obliged under its constitution, it provides access to quality food and basic nutrition besides good basic education as stipulated in its National Educational Policy.

It covered 20,815 primary and secondary schools in 2011 and fed 8,281,927 students for 182 days as per the NSNP annual report.  The impact has been phenomenal. The rationale and efficacy of MDM is unquestionable. However, despite exhaustive operating guidelines why it seemsso vulnerable? The MDM statistics look awesome.

There’re 5,77,000 kitchens set up under National Programme For Nutrition Support to Primary Education and 24 lakh cooks all over the country to feed 12 crore children.  Planning Commission’s Approach Paper for 12th Plan period (2012-2017) summarises that percentage of children in rural areas under 6 to 14 years not enrolled in school dropped from 6.6 per cent in 2005 to 3.5 per cent in 2010. The proportion of girls in the age group 11 to 14 years not attending schools also declined from 11.2 per cent in 2005 to 5.9 percent in 2010; all these largely due to the MDM programme.

Design intervention may benew to policy domain, yetthe two may comecloser to meet the emerging challenges. A recent report titled ‘Design for Public Good’by the UK Design Council, European Union and the rest, mentions the UK government’s Civil Service Reform Plan which expects Civil Service to be, ‘pacier, more innovative, less hierarchical, focused on outcomes, not process,’ and its policy ‘linked to implementation,’ leverage a ‘less narrow range of views’ and one which finds new methods of delivering public services.

It’s time public policy and design met half way. However, for this design itself will have to be refashioned as a social process meant to deliver larger social good rather than esoteric aesthetic delight.
Policymakers on their part will have to infuse design’s DNA at various stages of policy process and leverage its creative prowess to implement policies of larger social good.  

The author is a Senior Faculty at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad
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