School Meal in Madhya Pradesh the Better Taste

In the school of Dargada village of Seoni District, the mid-day meal is taking the shape of a fundamental right in the life of children. In this tribal-dominated village, no child is out of school. Despite several discrepancies and corruption, the mid-day meal is not only providing the children with an opportunity to get regular meal, but has also led the local community to contribute in the arrangements.

The Guruji at the school D R Verma says that it was not always that the mid-day meal scheme ran properly in the school. The positive change came only in August 2006 after lot of efforts. Earlier, the school had only one teacher for the 124 students enrolled and only Khichdi was cooked and served that too quite irregularly. This led to the villagers looking at the school administration suspiciously, speciously teachers. However the villagers also did not pay much attention to the scheme and it was not run in a planned manner. Also securing food grains for running the scheme was difficult. In such situation was it possible that the children would be getting regular and nutritious mid-day meals? The question is not too difficult to answer because no one these days expects real benefit from government schemes and who would listen to the cries of children in such circumstances.

The face of the scheme changed in Dargada in August 2006 and the biggest outcome is that the children are getting regular mid-day meals and the attendance that ranged from 80 to 85 earlier has gone up to 105 and 112.

Is the scheme a burden on the teachers? The teacher at Dargada School says that it is a burden if one considers it so. It depends on the fact that how Government, Parents or Society and Teachers looks each other. The food grain is received in a bulk and it takes two hours a week to purchase vegetables and the members of Parents-Teachers Association help in this matter. A woman employed for the purpose cooks the food and it takes just 15 minutes to feed the children. The teachers and other staff also eat along with them. The teacher feels there has been lot of positive changes, yet there are many challenges and problems still associated with the process.

Panch of the village Atro Bai says that the provision for honorarium of the cook and fuel is impractical. There is provision of just 20 ps per children for fuel, which is totally insufficient and if the cook tries to collect fuel wood from forest area, she faced action. Thus the community has to contribute for purchase of fuel. Similarly the honorarium of cook of Rs 25 for cooking food for 100 children is just inhumane. It is a work requiring physical labour and at least minimum wages should be paid. There is a nearby village called Bhondki. Shivani, a little student of the school here says that she likes to go to school because she gets food there and she enjoys eating along with her other friends. But sometime ago, the mid-day meal scheme here got discontinued because the cook was paid only Rs 10 for cooking food for 40 children. The villagers then decided to contribute Rs Six from their side. This is a village dominated by tribal labourers and the president of the Parents-Teachers' Association Jagdish says that now the parents don't have to worry about leaving food at home for children and done require to take them along to their working site. The children just got roti and salt at home but now at least they know the taste of vegetables, dal and spices. None of the children ever waste their food at school.

A ten-year analysis of the scheme that was launched in 1995 does not paint a very good picture. The reasons behind launch of the scheme were very important, but owing to lack of political commitment it could not be implemented in let alone ideal but even average manner. Since the governments were under pressure regarding malnutrition, food insecutiy and poverty, it started running a `Dalia distribution scheme' that was on one side marred by irregularity and on another by non-accountability. The government did not look at the mid-day meal scheme from an integrated development point of view.

The truth is that as many as 23 lakh children in MP were out of school and those who were going to school had their learning ability impacted negatively because of high levels of malnutrition. This reflected in the fact that 35 percent of the children left schools without completing first five years of formal education. In a way, poverty and malnutrition deprive the children of their right to education and being deprived of education they remain away from honour, equity and livelihood rights. Even presently, six out of ten children are weak and malnourished. Not only this as much as 82 percent of the children suffer from anemia. In such situation, how it could be expected that they would develop in a proper way and would be able to survive in a knowledge seeking academic process, when their mind and body are both weak?

According to a survey of the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, 74 percent of the tribal children suffer from malnutrition. In such circumstances, during the year 2000-2001, 13.28 lakh children in the age group of six to 14 years were out of school and 56 pc of these were girls. As many as 9.4 lakhs of these children never went close to school, let alone be enrolled. As per state government statistics, 3.88 lakh children were out of school before they reached class V. A document of the MP Government on Mid-Day meal scheme says that experience suggests that weak and malnourished children or those who have to work to support their families are the ones who are out of school or are dropping out. In such situation, the MP government in year 2005 started the efforts of liberating the children from the burden of eating half-cooked tasteless dalia. This cannot be called as a meaningless effort because presently as many as 1.11 crore children are beneficiaries under the mid-day meal scheme.

A study by NGO Samaj Pragati Sahayog Madhya Pradesh proves that since the mid-day meal scheme was launched, the enrolment of children in class I increased by 36 pc. The government school at Chacharya village has 525 students on roll. Here the cooks belong to both higher caste and dalit category and all children eat their food together.

Normally the quality of the mid-day meal comes under scrutiny but a recent study by research scholar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Nicholas Robinson found that the quality of mid-day meal has improved a lot during last one year. The study said that in some places like Seoni, the food was termed as better than that cooked at home. But although the Nandi Foundation is supplying food through centralized system in some places, in other places half-baked chapattis, thin dal and spiceless vegetables are common. Also involvement of private organisations negates the objectives of equity and providing employment to deprived people. Thus ensuring local preparation of the food is important.

At one point of time (between 1995 and 2001) the state government just spent paise 36 per child on the scheme, but after the Supreme Court came up with an order on November 28, 2001 that the children should get cooked for at least 200 days a year and that in the drought-prone district, the children should get the food even during summer breaks, has made mid-day meal a legal right for the children. Now the government is spending Rs 2.16 to 2.30 per children on the meal, but still it has to be increased up to Rs. 5.50 per day, as teachers and parents both have experienced the need of this increment.

The government should accept that this spending is not any relief or discount, but only an important investment. The development rate would become good and constant only if the children of the state are healthy.

In the bettering situation, five issues still demand attention. The first is that the amount of food should be adequate, second is about quality and serious attention should be paid on the way of cooking of the food. The third issue is about ensuring daily benefit of the scheme to the children for the period when school is open. It becomes serious when the children do not get food for eight to ten days in a month. The fourth point is to extend the scheme till high school level. In the adolescent stage, the children need better nutrition. The fifth issue is to ensure that the cooks get enough honorariums and the arrangement of cooking of food should be separate. In last few years, the right to food has become mass movement and the government has been forced to take proper steps. In such situation, it would be worth noticing as to what role the community plays in implementation of the scheme. 

Sachin Kumar Jain

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