Community supervision would correct the flaws in the midday meal scheme
The recent death of children after eating a midday meal laced with insecticide has brought into sharp focus the issue of the structure of this programme,and its potential costs and benefits. First,we must acknowledge the sea of evidence from several studies in India,which shows that when cooked school meals are provided,at minimum standards of quality,they improve students attendance,increase daily nutritional intakes and have a positive impact on their long-term health outcomes. These benefits are significantly greater if the programme is delivered,in the form of cooked meals on the school premises,directly to the children,rather than through the distribution of take-home rations. So the chorus of voices that point at the incident in Bihar as evidence of a non-functional and even harmful programme that should be replaced with ready-to-eat or dry rations is like the proverbial blind man feeling for the elephant.
Like all public programmes in India,monitoring is an issue. But what can better monitoring achieve if the programmes infrastructure is virtually non-existent? A majority of the rural (and even some of the urban) public schools that were mandated to provide hot cooked meals by the Supreme Court ruling of 2001 are yet to have a pucca room or kitchen for cooking the meals. Cooking,serving and eating utensils are often of poor quality or absent. There are no proper storage facilities for foodgrain procured under the programme. The weak programme infrastructure is a direct consequence of its weak financial structure. The state governments financial contribution to running the programme is routed through the general funds allocated to panchayats to meet their basic civic requirements. And the panchayats have no financial incentive to provide quality meals.
If the state government earmarked funds for the midday meal (MDM) programme,it would ensure that the service providers,that is,the panchayats,do not have the incentive to cut back on the quality of the meals. Further,the current MGNREGA programme funds could be used to build school kitchens and storage area for foodgrain,as was the case with the erstwhile Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana funds in some southern states. MDM cooks almost routinely complain that their salaries have not been paid. Very often,the reason for non-payment is again the disincentives created by the financial structure of the programmes. Since the MGNREGA aims to guarantee rural employment,particularly to women,these programme funds could be used to ensure regular payment of salaries to cooks hired under the MDM programme.
A study conducted jointly by researchers at the Indian Statistical Institute,Delhi,and the Delhi School of Economics finds that the introduction of semi-automated,centralised kitchens for MCD schools significantly improved the hygiene and quality of school meals. It also ensured that meals were provided on a regular basis. The introduction of such kitchens,wherever possible (mostly in urban and semi-urban areas),should be actively pursued by policymakers.
The next issue that would need to be addressed is monitoring. A pertinent model is the one adopted by Karnataka in 2001,through its School Development and Monitoring Committees (SDMCs). The SDMCs represent all local stakeholders in the public school system. A majority of the members are parents of the students. The headmaster and representatives of all three tiers of the panchayat are also members. Each SDMC has a fixed term of three years and is entrusted with the all issues related to the functioning of the school. Note that the funds for the MDM are released directly to the SDMC via the panchayat. So the local stakeholders are directly responsible for implementing the programme. The incentives to ensure that the programme functions well are therefore aligned with the interests of most SDMC members.
Given the sheer scale of the programme in terms of the number of schools it caters to,community monitoring is the only effective and viable option. The public good provided,that is,school meals,meets two of the three basic criteria for effective participatory monitoring: beneficiaries have high stakes in providing the good and they do not require any specific skills to measure its quality. However,the effectiveness of any monitoring system ultimately lies in the power it has to punish those found guilty of malfeasance. So the third criterion for an effective monitoring process is that it must culminate in an enforceable and credible contract that not only allocates responsibilities but defines timelines and ensures that those who have been found guilty of irregularities are punished. There lies the fundamental challenge of ensuring the delivery of quality school meals in India.
The writer is assistant professor,economics and planning unit,Indian Statistical Institute,Delhi