The National programme for Nutritional Support for Primary Education commonly referred to as the Mid Meal Scheme (MDM’s) is aimed at providing supplementary nutrition to primary school children with the overall objective of enhancing enrollment, retention and participation of children while simultaneously improving their nutritional status. Under the scheme every child in every government school and government assisted primary school is provided with a prepared mid day meal with a minimum calorie content of 450 calories and 12 grams of protein on a daily basis for a minimum of 200 days.
A far cry from providing such benefits, the functioning of MDM’s in Delhi has most recently been found to impede rather than improve the nutritional status of children in government schools. Last week 29 children studying in a government girls middle school in Hauz Qazi near Ajmeri Gate, fell ill after consuming ‘choley puri’ served as part of the mid day meal. While a case was registered with the police, school and government authorities responded by dismissing claims of illness pointing out that they were psychological in nature. According to the State Education Minister, Arivnder Singh Lovely, ‘somebody had spread a rumour that there was an insect in the food due to which students started feeling sick’. This incident comes in the wake of a similar case in the November 2009 when 125 children from a government school in Trilokpari fell ill after consuming the mid day meal. Following large scale protest by parents and opposition parties the Delhi government responded by suspending the MDM scheme for two days to review it’s functioning. Additionally the license of the society responsible for providing such food was also cancelled and samples of the contaminated food were taken for examination.
Ironically such instances have emerged despite the move by the Department of Education (the nodal agency responsible for the implementation of the MDM scheme) to outsource the responsibility of supplying MDM’s to a number of NGO’s/Societies. Unlike states which follow a decentralized model wherein food is prepared within the school premises by a cook or a helper, the Department of Education has opted for a centralized model where an external agency prepares and supplies meals to schools. The rationale behind the adoption of this model was the belief that food prepared in a centralized kitchen would ensure the provision of hygienic and nutritious food as well as allow for the optimum utilization of infrastructural facilities. It was felt that only a centralized model allowed for mechanized food preparation which was touted as being efficient as it would simultaneously lower labour costs and by limiting the chances of human contact, also serve to lower the occurrence of food contamination. Moreover the reduced financial responsibility of the DOE within such a model was also an important motivation for its adoption. Today there are 11 NGO’s/Societies who operate a total of 13 kitchens and supply food to 1.1 lack children who are covered under the scheme.
Currently the MDM scheme is monitored by a range of bodies, the foremost being the School Mid-day Meal Committees (SMDMC). The (SMDMC) is constituted at the school level and comprises of the Head of School, Teacher in charge of the MDM, Home Science teacher, at least 3 mothers of children from different classes, the DDO of the school and one Vidyalaya Kalyan Samiti (VKS) member. These committees are empowered with the responsibility of receiving and monitoring the MDM’s on a daily basis. At the department level, a Zonal Level Steering Cum Monitoring Committee, comprising of the Education Officer of the zone, two principals, two parents and one VKS member is expected to draw up a month-wise programme of monitoring the distribution of the MDM and inform the DDEs (District Deputy Directors of Education) about the same. Education Officers (EO’s) are also expected to be present as far as possible in schools falling within their respective zones at the time of distribution of the MDM. The monitoring of the working of the SDMC’s and the Zonal level steering committee is the responsibility of the DDE’s. Complaints from parents, schools or service providers are examined and resolved by the DDEs. In addition MDM guidelines also allow for appointment of independent agencies to monitor and evaluate the agencies.
In spite of the formulation of such a robust monitoring structure, its implementation has been found to be far from adequate. According to a recent study conducted by the Supreme Court Commissioners Office regarding the functioning of the MDM’s in the city, the participation of beneficiaries particularly parents and children in monitoring bodies such as the SDMC has been found to be minimal. In many instances testing of food is only done once the food is delivered to the schools. Teachers often do not visit the kitchens to test the quality of food provided. Furthermore EO’s also rarely visit schools to oversee the distribution of MDM’s. In 2008 out of the 136.86 lakhs which were allocated towards Management and Monitoring Expenditure, the total expenditure under this head was only 1.40 lakhs (1%) with expenditure on school monitoring committees accounting for 0%. Moreover within the 1.40 lakhs which were spent, management expenses accounted for a bulk of the share. External monitoring and evaluation expenditure during that year was also reported as being nil.
Thus problems of food contamination and lack of quality hardly seem surprising in light of such ineffective systems of monitoring. The Department of Education’s eagerness in outsourcing the supply of food grains was not matched with an emphasis on strengthening the monitoring and accountability provisions. The centralized model was heralded as a panacea without due cognizance of the fact that unlike a decentralized model where the suppliers and the beneficiaries come in direct contact, the new model served to increase the distance between the suppliers and the ultimate beneficiaries making it more difficult for the beneficiaries to monitor the supply of services.
Gayatri Sahgal is a Research Associate with the Accountability Initiative.