This article tries to take a critical look at the MDM scheme in India by considering some papers which quantify its achievements and shortcomings. The general layout of this article is: a short introduction of the MDM scheme, the achievements, the shortcomings and then finally the conclusion.
MDM was introduced in India in 1995, and by 2008-09, it was extended to all government schools in the country. Under MDM, free meals are provided to school children on all working days of the school. It’s financed jointly by the Central and State governments and has the following objectives:
- Improving the nutritional status of children in schools
- Encouraging regular attendance and class participation of especially poor, disadvantaged and female students
- In areas declared ‘drought affected’, school children get nutritional support, even during non-working days
Other benefits of the scheme include inculcation of hygienic habits (washing hands before and after eating), increased social interaction amongst students of different social strata (castes, class, religion etc.).
One of the main motivation behind introducing this scheme was to give an incentive to parents to send their children to school, as the burden of providing lunch to children was transferred away from the parents and borne by the school.
A number of studies have come up with positive findings about the MDM program. The most obvious and tangible benefit of the scheme has been the marked increase in the attendance and retention of girl children and children belonging to the SC/ST communities (historically disadvantaged communities in India) in schools. Studies conducted by a number of different and independent institutes and having as their sample, data from a number of Indian states and districts confirm this. For example, in a study conducted by Samaj Pragati Sahyog in the 70 most backward villages of Madhya Pradesh, it was found that there was a 15% increase in enrollment in schools after the implementation of MDM, and the number increased to 43% when only SC/ST enrollments were considered.
Another study conducted in the same state (“Mid Day Meal Scheme in Madhya Pradesh – A study – 2007” by National Institute of Public Cooperation & Child Development, Indore) found that apart from increasing enrollment rates, it also reduced school drop-out rates, especially for girls. Teachers surveyed by this study reported that MDM had also aided in the active learning at school and thus increased the academic performance.
Similarly, a study (“Cooked Mid-Day meal programme in West Bengal – A study of Birbhum district”.
Professor Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Research Team 2005) shows that MDM has also reduced teacher absenteeism and narrowed social distances amongst school children (the act of eating together has special significance in the Indian context. Historically, only members of the same social caste could eat together).
It goes without saying that it is quite difficult to measure the changes in parameters like enrollment, attendance, drop-out rates etc. that can be directly attributed to the introduction of MDM program. There can be other causes like an increased awareness amongst parents about the need to send children to school in a changing world etc. that can also be attributed the change. Also, many of the studies considered the opinion of teachers in measuring academic performance, and this can always be distorted by their own biases.
There are also a fair number of studies which point out serious shortcomings in the MDM program. And which have a look at whether development funds released at the government level, actually reach the level of schools to be able to pay for the food items and cooking costs.
A study conducted by the independent body ‘Centre for Policy research’ for tracking accountability came up with some interesting results for 4 districts in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
- Only about 60% of the enrolled children received MDM per day.
- Food grain stocks in schools were much lower than needed to serve MDM in accordance with the norms.
The release (quantum and timing) of food grains from higher levels of the administration is not adequate to meet school needs and points to a planning gap.
- There was a huge difference between the quantity of food grains allotted to the state and the quantity which was actually lifted by the state. Bihar lifted just 52% of the grains allocated for it, while Uttar Pradesh was better at 82%.
Other studies found out that a lack of proper infrastructure for storing and cooking food grains led to wastage and spoilage of food grains. This also poses a serious health hazard to kids.
It would be wise at this point to caution that the two states considered by this study are amongst the most backward in the country, and consistently rank very low in governance indicators. As such, one cannot draw country level generalizations based on this study. But it does go to show the status of MDM for about 30% of the school kids in the country (that’s the combined population of these two states).
To conclude, a scheme should be judged not only by analyzing its achievements and shortcomings, but also by taking into account the costs (in this case the monetary costs to the government) of financing the scheme. The 2015 budget allocates Rupees. 9236.40 Crore (Eu. 1,231.5 Million) which at about 20 crore school children, comes to a sum of about Rupees 1.5 (Eu. 0.02) per student per meal.
This goes to show that the scheme itself is a great and inexpensive way of improving both education and nutrition amongst school children in India. What needs to be done though, is for the states to ramp up their operational effectiveness in delivering the scheme to school kids.
By Akshay Kolvalkar