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Where The Chalk Meets The Cheese

Children across India, as elsewhere, missed going to school during the Covid-19 pandemic. They also missed the hot food being cooked next door at the school. Its aroma can be distracting for a class in session. But it is also a sure attraction to study if that is probably going to be the only full meal for a poor child.

Millions of children across India, adding up to nearly half the population, even those who can afford two meals and more, eat at school under a scheme that completes 62 years this year. About 118 million children are fed on at least 200 school days in a year through the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDM), making it the largest scheme of its kind in the world. With an allocation of ₹11,500 crore for FY 2021-22, it caters to children of Class I-VIII across 11.2 lakh government and government-aided schools.

Statistics for this centrally-funded scheme operated by states (since education is under their charge) with help of non-government organizations (NGOs) are fuzzy and often come as percentages that can be challenged.

It matters little. The fact is that the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, MDM for short, has brought down the drop-out rate among students, both rural and urban, and contributed to the rising literacy at the primary and secondary levels. Viewed from macro level or micro, the scale is huge. Cooking and feeding requires human effort, as much as teaching. Perhaps, even more if you consider quantities of food to be cleaned and cooked, and soiled vessels to be cleaned each day.

Just compare with the family kitchen and contrast the absence of gadgetry. Think of cooking in a corner of a school that is but a tin shed, with coal or wood for fuel.

Begun in Tamil Nadu in 1960 by Chief Minister K Kamaraj and expanded in 1982 by M G Ramachandran (MGR), the MDM now covers the whole country. For Tamil Nadu, the circle is complete. Chief Minister M K Stalin was in Delhi recently to study how Delhi administers it. On May 7, completing one year in office, he announced a ‘breakfast scheme” for government school children up to class five, to curb the rise of “unhealthy, under-nourished children” in the state.  Come to think of it, it was at once admission by the pioneer of the past failure and promise to better in the future.

MDM’s really is a chicken-and-egg story. It may have drawn from elsewhere and has spawned clones, based on the universal logic of combining bread with blackboard.

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In the US, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) program has been around since 1946. Supply of curry meals by Manoj Raichura, an enterprising British Indian, has helped to arrest the truancy rates at schools in the city of Southampton. With numerous faults and flaws, MDM remains one of the success stories of India’s social sector.

There, indeed, are stories of stale food and of unsuspecting children falling sick. There is corruption — of food disappearing, items like milk and eggs, meant to boost nutrition content, remaining on the paper and ending up in the open market and of numbers of beneficiaries being fudged.

Insufficient food can turn a child into a modern-day Oliver Twist. It cannot be defended. In reality, however, it is difficult to ensure the quality and quantity of a meal, consumed by children, in schools small and big, day after day. Also, in each state, each region, children have differing food habits.

Then, there are social and religious taboos. Karnataka Government’s efforts to extend serving of eggs to children are being protested by the powerful Jains and Lingayats. The role of thousands of NGOs engaged in running the scheme is crucial. While the government often puts out a positive picture and statistics to support it, or when the states are finding fault with the federal government and vice versa, it is the NGOs who generally tell the real story.

Then, there are problems peculiar to India. Upper caste parents prevent their children from eating if the food is cooked by someone from low caste. Save these exceptions that make news and are derided, children eat from these casteless kitchens. It is education through the stomach.

It boils down to food and its management. The taste, the use of spices, the food habits like wheat in the north and rice in the south – so many things differ. Just like in a family. There are no easy solutions. Cooking and feeding is only a part of the task. After all, one is not running an eatery for profit.

Having to cook food makes the task really daunting. Former minister in the Manmohan Singh Government Renuka Chaudhary thought she was being ‘pragmatic’ in suggesting pre-cooked food such as biscuits. But this created a powerful lobby of biscuit and confectionary makers, some of them powerful multinationals. When the NGOs protested, the Supreme Court ruled that only cooked food would be served and that the cooking would be done daily. No junk food. No chips, chocolates and toffees.

Like other social sector schemes, the MDM too has its politics. The states, very possessive of their turf, happily accept central funds, but they will not take up its administration. Past resolves to transfer the MDM scheme to the states have not materialized.

Political preferences get injected. Each state has favourite areas for splurging. Like erecting statues. But when it comes to social sector, they throw up their hands and want the federal government alone to finance it. The MDM is just one such scheme. As the scheme evolves, standards are sought to be improved and an element of sharing is gradually coming in. But the scheme is too huge to run smoothly.

MDM is one of the flagship schemes that are central to the achievement of medium term goals in India’s social sector. “The chances of fulfilling these goals appear bleak if the trends in allocations are any indicator,” R. Ramakumar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, has warned.

Feeding future generations better while educating it cannot be over-stressed.

The writer may be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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