Linkage with livelihood?

One of the oldest and flagship schemes, Mid-day Meal has evolved to focus beyond nutrition

Mid-day Meal, preliminarily taken as foundation model in primary schools of India has had a long trajectory with ups and downs as well as history since 1925, the year of its introduction which was earmarked for the disadvantaged children in Madras Municipal Corporation. By the mid-1980s, three states: Gujarat, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, and the UT of Pondicherry had universalised a cooked Mid-day Meal Programme with their own resources for children studying at the primary stage. By 1990-91, the number of States implementing the Mid-day meal programme with their own resources on a universal or a large scale had increased to twelve states.

First judicial mandate

Triggered by the ruling and mandate of the Supreme Court of India on 28 November 2001 as "Right of The Child (6 yrs to 14 yrs)", the scenario had changed towards the better and widespread spectrum. Mid-day meal (MDM) in the form of a wholesome freshly-cooked lunch served to children on a daily basis has become a way of life in government and government-aided schools in India – touching upon millions of innocent lives and their parents … like the same in other developing countries.

A list of benefits

MDM does not warrant one single benefit like "adding the nutritional value to the child's meal", but manifold pouring into the confluence of equality, growth, nation building and all round buoyancy. Few are as under :

Greater participation from the disadvantaged (Dalit, Tribals, and girls)

Reduction of class conflict and classroom hunger for higher enrollment and retention

Fostering change of mindset regarding gender and social bias at childhood

Boosting female attendance to scale up attachment towards self-reliance

Promotion of health and hygiene at the earliest stage

Challenges and concerns : The way forward

While keeping the main objective of the Mid-day Meal Scheme (i.e., the attainment of the goal of universalisation of primary education en masse) in view, there is a pipeline of challenges and concerns too, unwrapped as under :

Proxy enrolment for meals

Low infrastructure & high corruption

Poor management & lack of supervision

Persisting caste conflict at the rural level

Attendance to school for a meal only

Absence of social audit and SOP (Standard Operational Practice)

Mammoth project , large coffer

In all fitness of the things, such projects always remain a subject under the evaluation scanner in order to draw significant insight and inference to realise the trend.

A total of 9.46 Crores of children are said to the beneficiaries in FY 2017-18 from 11.34 L schools. The erstwhile Planning Commission had allocated an outlay of Rs 90,155 crore in the 12th Five Year Plan for Mid Day Meal Scheme. The entire project is run by the Department of School Education & Literacy under the Ministry of Human Resource, Government of India.

Current surveys for evaluation and findings

This mammoth project, like similar other projects, inherits series of evaluation mechanism with an array of inbuilt components viz. periodical surveys, data collection and data dissemination till the end of the research, analysis and findings, etc. In the course of implementation, this one of a kind project has come a long way from a startup model to the scaled-up model.

Before the end of the latest series of surveys conducted recently for the purpose of findings, the rate of admission was found to have shot to near 100 per cent with the real-time improvement of the quality of food and service. Confirming to the popular concept that Mid-day Meal brought an improvement in nutrition and enrollment, a recent but long term survey has not proved that there is sufficient reason to believe in the influence of Mid-day meal in the quality of primary education, received by the beneficiaries. Rather the condition in India is quite bleak. In one survey involving statistics of 1 lakh primary school goers across a few states, the following picture surfaced:

Firstly, the majority of daily class training hours have been snatched away by meal management from the teaching staff, as a result of which, adverse reflection on the education delivery. Secondly, a low trend to learn has been noticed in one survey. 44 per cent of children within the age group (7yrs – 12yrs) are not able to read one paragraph in their own mother tongue. 50 per cent are not able to understand the basic logic of mathematics like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, etc.

While analysing the behavioural pattern of such sample data of 1 lakh beneficiaries, the observations are of multiple shades. It is observed that when a child gets a first-time opportunity to avail for the first two years, there is a prolific improvement in his/her study habit and counting skill. Again, after 3 years of availing the scope, improvement reaches newer height. But, a steady availing of Mid-day meal for more than 3 years does not necessarily increase his absorption of knowledge in the same ratio or pattern. Rather, a stalemate situation in the growth of intellect is noted.

There is no conclusion drawn over the assumption of the role and contribution of "Mid-day Meal" in enhancing the quality of education. On the contrary, the comfort level in study and counting skill increases only when the student-teacher time ratio shoots up, where the role of "Mid-day Meal" for few years is of a catalyst along with the other supply line – books, clothes, and other kits.

One positive observation marked during the surveys is the phenomenal pointer over the issue of gender bias – i.e., both boys and girls are the beneficiaries.

Mission: Spreading across time

One survey shows the time essence in the unwrapping of the opportunity like the following:

In 2002- Rajasthan had started "Mid-day Meal", giving scope to the then students of Class I. West Bengal had started this journey in 2005 for a student of Class I. Therefore, the substantial growth had been observed in the case of the child of Rajasthan (studying in Class III) and the child of West Bengal (studying in Class V).

In the initial part of this journey in India, much more priority had been given to the issue of child nutrition and classroom, hunger, etc. The focus on learning comes now as a deliverable, toying with various options in linking with the betterment of this scheme – management as well as the livelihood.

One of the major challenges faced by the government was the successful implementation of the scheme. As per the NP-NSPE, 2006 Guidelines (Mid-day Meal Scheme Guidelines), wherever possible, the Government would mobilise community support and promote public-private partnership for the programme. The organisations, not-for-profits, such as Akshaya Patra, are therefore, encouraged to set up operations and act as the implementing arm of the Government.

Of late, Bettiah district of Bihar and Thane district of Maharastra have employed mothers as quality monitors of Mid-day meal food served and it has produced good results. This should be replicated in the rest of the country. Seeking the help of corporate organisations is another easy way out — opening the door to a system of contractors to manage the operation professionally.

Linkages: Innovative thoughts

This phenomenal mission and the database of a huge number of beneficiaries, since predominantly going to be Aadhaar Card based, can be of multiple linkages in future. Out of which, "Skill India Mission" can be linked effectively for the purpose of livelihood linkages of the needy with several trades of Class VIII eligibility (welder, fitter, painter, workman, tailor, plumber, and many more) etc. They can be transformed as "Trained & Certified Skilled Resources" and connected to Wage Employment, protected by the Minimum Wages Act.

Such linkages will transform a needy child to an earning member for his or her family – in order to complete a journey called from a non-entity to an identity.

(Partha Pratim Majumder is Head of Social Initiatives Section, Indian Chamber of Commerce, Kolkata. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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