Published: 15th August 2022
Midday meal scheme was launched 27 years ago on Independence Day, August 15, 1995. Where does it stand now?
The scheme that was first launched in 1995 was meant to improve students’ attendance in schools, reduce dropouts and have a beneficial impact on children’s nutrition
What claims to be the world’s most ambitious free school feeding programme, India’s Mid-Day Meal scheme turns 27 today, August 15 as it was first initiated by the former Prime Minister of India, PV Narasimha Rao on this day in the Independent India of 1995. Since then, the programme has gone through multiple ups and downs with changes in the menu, changes in the name, allocation of funds and monitoring mechanisms such as linking of Aadhar.
It may be recalled that after over two decades, the midday meal scheme was expanded to PM-POSHAN (POshan SHAkti Nirman) scheme launched on September 29, 2021. Pegged to be much more than a midday meal, the scheme offers to monitor the nutritional levels of school students by appointing a nutritional expert for each and every school. The nutritional experts would also monitor the BMI, haemoglobin and weight of the students.
Moreover, the scheme was launched for the next five years (from 2021-22 to 2025-26) with an outlay of Rs 1.31 lakh crore, within this, Rs 54,061.73 crore is the central government’s share while Rs 31,733.17 crore is the share of the state
Although the scheme, altogether, has been touted by food rights activists as a massive opportunity to address malnutrition in children, they still point out some of its anomalies.
Swati Narayan from the Right to Food Campaign said that the content of the midday meals must be made more nutritional, as has been suggested by several surveys time and again. “Such as Tamil Nadu, the child nutritional indicators are better but it's not like this all over the country. So if we still have high child malnutrition then the content of the meal needs to be improved,” she said.
But what is the scheme all about?
The scheme that was first launched in 1995, was meant to improve students’ attendance in schools, reduce dropouts and have a beneficial impact on children’s nutrition. Under the scheme, the Central Government supplies the full requirement of food grains free of cost. Additionally, for its implementation in rural areas, Panchayats and Nagarpalikas are also involved in setting up the necessary infrastructure for preparing cooked food.
However, the scheme has now undergone multiple changes in the last few years. Here are some of the most recent developments from South India summed up:
Most government schools in seven districts of the state have started providing eggs in the mid-day meal from December 1 last year for students between the age group of six and 15 years, after much debate and discussion. The purpose was to provide eggs in schools only in selected districts where it has been noted that children are hit by malnutrition or have nutritional deficiencies. However, eggs have proven to be a contentious item to be added to the menu. At least three parents in Koppal and Ballari districts of Karnataka withdrew their kids from school in December last year in protest against the introduction of eggs, according to reports.
Additionally, mid-day meal workers have not received the honorarium for the months of April, May, June and July, as stated in a report by The New Indian Express. In fact, several activists also protested in association with the All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC) on August 3, demanding that the government immediately release the pending honorariums for workers in the scheme.
In Telangana on the other hand, the quality of the mid-day meal has caused a stir. In fact, it also prompted a notice from the Telangana High Court to state government functionaries to disclose relevant data related to the meals served to pre-primary and primary school pupils in all government schools, as stated in a report by The New Indian Express.
This notice comes amidst multiple instances of food poisoning in several schools and educational institutions in the state. In fact, as many as 36 girl students of the Tribal Welfare Girls School in Mahabubabad district headquarters were taken to the Government Area Hospital on Friday, July 29, as they were displaying symptoms of food poisoning. In Mahabubabad district alone, this was the second such incident in three days. Students alleged that they found earthworms and insects in the food, according to reports.
Such instances were not limited to Telangana alone. In March, 85 students from two schools — one in Nandyal in Kurnool district and another in Kakkalappli in Anantapur district — were taken ill and admitted to hospitals, less than an hour after they consumed their mid-day meal. In a more recent instance in July, 40 students fell ill after consuming a mid-day meal in another primary school in Kurnool, according to reports.
States like Tamil Nadu have tried to address this situation. “They have a noon-meal manager at every school whose only job is to ensure quality and they get regular payment for it as well which ends up creating employment,” said Swati Narayan. Such a system should be followed across the country, she added.
Additionally, mid-day meal workers in the state who had protested earlier in March, had claimed that their demands were not being addressed by the government which is now handing over the scheme to the Akshay Patra Foundation, as stated in reports.
However, the state has taken steps to address malnutrition in the state as it released orders to supply eggs and peanut jaggery chikkis to all the students in schools, irrespective of them having mid-day meals at schools, under the Jagananna Gorumudda scheme, in July.
The state of Tamil Nadu on the other hand has gone one step ahead and introduced the breakfast scheme. It may be recalled it was Tamil Nadu that first started to provide mid-day meals to government school students. Among other objectives, the scheme aims to ensure that students do not suffer from malnutrition, to raise their nutritional status and to increase/retain the attendance of students in schools, according to the guidelines of the breakfast scheme. The guidelines also included a detailed menu for the breakfast for each day of the week.
In Kerala, the high prices of essential commodities and cooking gas have affected the mid-day meal scheme in schools, according to a report by The New Indian Express. Teachers’ associations have been demanding a hike in project allowance as several schools are in financial crisis. The report also pointed out that teachers in the state are struggling to distribute food within a budget that was fixed six years ago in schools with a feeding capacity of 150 students. In fact, the General Education Minister of Kerala V Sivankutty said that there was a delay in receiving the central allocation for the implementation of this scheme for the current academic year, as a result of which, the state government has allotted Rs 126 crore from its budget for the purpose.
Swati Narayan also said that the programme is not just about a school meal. With reference to the recent case wherein a Dalit boy from Rajasthan was allegedly beaten for drinking “upper-caste water,” she said that, “It's very important that this scheme promotes inter-caste dining and harmony which would actually be prohibited if you were to follow casteist traditional practices. It's about socialisation and fraternity in the classroom.”