The tragic incident in Bihar has raised questions about the midday meal (MDM) scheme, an otherwise popular and successful programme. Laggard states should use this as an opportunity to catch up with others and protect the scheme against emerging dangers.
For those unfamiliar with it, the MDM scheme is a huge programme that today feeds more than 11 crore children every day. It is also a very popular programme — it has a huge impact on enrolment especially of children from disadvantaged groups. More importantly, it helps retention (children drop out later than they would otherwise) and regular attendance — the lure of hot food makes the school environment more child-friendly. Finally, children are likely to learn more in school if they have a full stomach. The MDM scheme is also popular with poor working mothers as it makes it easier for them to send their child to school. Further, the scheme is an opportunity to impart nutrition education, inculcate hygiene habits (such as washing hands before eating) and allow children from different communities to share a meal.
Tamil Nadu pioneered the scheme in the 1960s, and has set an example in terms of nutrition, infrastructure, administration, monitoring and so on. While not many states are able to match Tamil Nadu (where children now get an egg everyday), there has been steady progress across the country (e.g, even poor states like Odisha provide eggs twice a week).
When the national scheme was launched in 1995, most states were providing "dry rations" (3kg of wheat or rice per month to take home) in government schools. They had to introduce cooked food after the Supreme Court's landmark order on November 28, 2001.
The contrast between Bihar and Rajasthan is particularly telling, as neither provided cooked food until the Court's order. When schools reopened in July 2002, neither state had kitchens, handpumps, utensils, cooks or helpers. In Rajasthan, teachers and students took on the task of fetching water, firewood, and cooking the meal. The "cooked meal" was just boiled wheat with salt or sugar — 'ghooghri'. Rajasthan has come a long way since then. Cooks and helpers have been appointed, handpumps and kitchen sheds are available, teachers only supervise (see table). Starting with ghooghri, now a weekly menu which includes fruit (a banana or guava) twice a week is in place. Bihar was the last state to comply with the court order on January 1, 2005. A Planning Commission (2010) for 2006-7 reported that the only states that have "low" levels of satisfaction were Jharkhand, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, the trajectory of the MDM in most states resembles that of Rajasthan rather than Bihar. Even in Bihar there has been slow progress, and given the burden of its past, it will take time to catch up.
Meanwhile, as budgetary allocations to the programme have risen — the Union budget allocated Rs 13,800 crore in 2013-14 — private entities have begun to eye the MDM "market". In 2008, a "Biscuit Manufacturers Association" wrote to Members of Parliament (MPs) trashing the scheme and urging them to replace it with fortified biscuits. Many MPs forwarded this proposal to the ministry concerned. Thankfully the proposal was shot down (can you imagine eating biscuits everyday instead of a hot meal!). Further, putting in place accountability mechanisms is more difficult as many contractors are persons with political clout. Late Ponty Chadha had cornered the entire supply of food to anganwadis in Uttar Pradesh. His contract remained untouched even with a change of government in UP and reports of supply of poor quality food. Similar issues have arisen in Delhi - with centralized kitchens supplying meals, parents, children, even teachers do not really know where to complain. Samples regularly fail quality tests, but not much has happened to remedy this. These examples point to the general danger of invasion of private interests into such programmes. Contractors will only come for profit, and will not hesitate to cut corners.
Ultimately there are three important lessons from this tragedy: one, administrative and monitoring systems need to be spruced up along the lines of what is seen in the leading states. Two, the government must guard against the creation of vested interests in these programmes in the name of "public-private partnerships" or bogus "self-help groups" which often come with a profit-at-any-cost motive. Three, the laggard states must learn from the many examples (Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu to name a few) and improve the nutritive content of the food provided.
Hopefully, the tragic incident in Bihar will also pave the way to end the daily heartbreak of children being served food with poor nutrition in some states. At Rs 5 per child daily, the MDM is perhaps the best investment states can make in their future.