For a programme so vital to the health of India's children, the death of 22 children in Chapra is a nightmare that has come to life. It is unfortunate that it takes a heart-wrenching tragedy to wake up India's middle classes to the situation faced by the poor on a daily basis. Can this calamity shake us up enough to ensure that our future generations live a healthy life? The midday meal (MDM) is an irreplaceable and crucial programme with the potential to provide food and nutrition inputs to most deserving and vulnerable sections of our population. This disaster was certainly avoidable, and accountability must be fixed. But we cannot allow this to descend into a cynical political blamegame. Over 10 crore of our children need this meal in more ways than we can imagine. We owe it to them to act together, and immediately transform this programme into something that truly delivers and is regularly discussed for all the right reasons.
The truth is that eradicating hunger and malnutrition of our children is still not a public priority. While some states like Tamil Nadu have a long history of providing cooked midday meals in schools, it took a Supreme Court order in 2001 to universalise the MDM programme. Under the right to food case, the SC ordered that every child in a government primary school must be given a hot cooked meal on every school working day. This replaced the utterly unimaginative and inadequate system of giving 3 kg foodgrain to the child to carry home at the end of the month.
Despite the wonder of watching a programme on a grand scale take shape based on a court order, the provision of school meals is implemented in at least 169 countries. The unmatched strategic value of a balanced nutritious meal in contributing to the education, health and nutrition of children has been documented by various studies across the world. Countries such as Brazil have pioneered in providing diverse school meals that include meat, vegetables and fruit, often sourced from local farmers.
The MDM scheme in our country reaches out to over 11 crore children across 12 lakh schools, employing about 24 lakh women as cooks and helpers. The scheme has multiple advantages. It encourages enrolment and attendance, addresses classroom hunger and even in better-off households, frees up working mothers from having to pack lunch. MDMs can also help dismantle untouchability, by ensuring children from different castes and backgrounds sit together, understand basic hygiene and eat food cooked by people from otherwise marginalised communities. It is also a great place to involve parents in the collective health of their children.
Despite its many problems and limitations, the MDM has proved popular with children and parents alike. Here are the basics: the Central government provides 100 gm of foodgrain per child per day. Rs 3.11 is what is provisioned to turn that into a nutritious meal, in a 3:1 Centre-state ratio. Many states make additional contributions to improve the quality of the meal. Orissa adds 0.50 paisa, Rajasthan gives a fruit once a week, and Puducherry even gives milk. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Delhi, Orissa and Chhattisgarh provide eggs. Tamil Nadu tops the list with an additional contribution of Rs 3.83 per child per day, which enables an egg a day, and much more.
The current national norms are not adequate for providing a nutritious meal to children. Inflation undermines the little that has been allocated. An evaluation by the Planning Commission in 2010 found the scheme very useful, but there are major gaps in infrastructure and delivery mechanisms. A parliamentary standing committee report from April this year also raises concerns related to quality of the meal and the fact that only 63 per cent of the kitchen-cum-stores sanctioned since 2006-07 have been constructed. Effective monitoring and grievance redress mechanisms would help better utilise meagre resources, but these are absent in most places. Norms for transparency are not strictly enforced.
It is worrying that instead of discussing how the system can be fixed, in reaction to the Bihar tragedy, some people are suggesting cash transfers instead of food, or the replacement of a locally made hot meal with centralised kitchens. We cannot continue to look for the easy escape from governance failures.
These gaps need to be addressed — now. In doing so, the standards of states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu have to be made the norm, and improved upon. Parent and community-based school management committees, mandated under the RTE, must be immediately established and involved in monitoring the quality of not just the MDMs but schools as a whole. Social audits of the scheme, as piloted in Andhra by the state social audit directorate, have already shown great potential to provide an effective platform for citizen-monitoring. Assigning monitoring responsibilities to officials at all levels from the village, block, district and state, as seen in Tamil Nadu, must be replicated. The MDM scheme also needs an effective grievance redress mechanism.
With a combination of political will, administrative accountability and personal responsibility, we can deliver. The national food security ordinance will hopefully be discussed by Parliament in a few weeks. In its current form, it incorporates provisions for MDMs at existing levels. Can we insist these be increased by providing a total of up to Rs 10 per child, per day in a 3:1 Centre-state ratio, without being told that our economy will collapse and our credit ratings will fall? Immediate passage of the grievance redress bill pending in Parliament can help by setting up an independent and decentralised mechanism where complaints are addressed effectively and in a time-bound manner. Apart from these legislative and administrative measures, nothing will help more than each of us promising to give an hour a week to our local government school, and helping in the MDM. A good quality MDM can go a long way in ensuring at least a part of the children's right to food. Our money, time and attention can make all the difference.
Sinha, with the Public Health Resource Network, is associated with the Right to Food Campaign. Dey works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and various rights-based campaigns