Meals in school may be bringing smiles on the faces of more and more children in most parts of the country, but the news from Punjab is not very encouraging.
The number of elementary class (1 to 8) students of government schools covered under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, a centrally-sponsored flagship programme, has seen a sharp drop in recent years in Punjab. While the state was providing mid-day meal to 88% of the total children enrolled in primary classes (1 to 5) of government school across the state in 2009-10, the coverage has plummeted to 80% in the first two quarters (April-September) of the current academic year, according to the report of the Fourth Review Mission of the union ministry for human resource development (MHRD) that visited the state recently.
Similarly, the coverage of children enrolled in upper primary classes (6 to 8) has witnessed abrupt fluctuations in the past five years. "It has gone down from 91% in 2011-12 to 85% in the April-September period of the current year," Dr Amarjit Singh, additional secretary, elementary education, MHRD, wrote to the Punjab government last month, asking it to ascertain reasons for this decline and take remedial steps.
The Centre has attributed the drop in the number of beneficiaries to bottlenecks in supply and delay in release of funds to the schools.
The mission team -- comprising Gaya Prasad, director, MHRD; KS Pannu, director general, school education, Punjab; Ranjit Singh Ghuman, representative of the office of Supreme Court commissioner; and Jatinder Grover of Punjab University -- had visited several schools in Amritsar and Pathankot districts in October 2012.
The meal-at-school scheme is aimed at enhancing enrollment, retention and attendance, and simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children. Though the coverage of such children in Punjab is better than the all-India average of 73% in 2012-13, it compares poorly with neighbouring Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, besides Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Sikkim, which provide mid-day meals to 90% or more children.
DELAY IN FUND RELEASES
There was a delay of up to four months in release of funds by the state and district authorities to government schools. "The schools were dry of funds whereas the district authorities had earned huge amount of interest on the MDM (mid-day meal) grant kept in the bank accounts," according to the 40-page MHRD team report. The school authorities had to run the scheme by taking groceries on credit from shopkeepers or through self-contribution.
In some cases, panchayats and teachers contributed funds to provide meals to the children. "The interest could have been utilised for providing financial assistance to the schools," the report said, advising the state government to bypass a few channels and release funds directly to the implementing agencies. Delay was also noticed in release of funds to a school being run in Amritsar under the National Child Labour Project.
MINDSET OF DECISION-MAKERS
The drop in coverage is perhaps also linked to the mindset of the decision-makers that the state, where roughly two-third of the children in government schools belong to the Scheduled Castes and economically weaker sections of the society, has no shortage of food and, therefore, malnutrition is not a very serious problem.
Punjab education minister Sikander Singh Maluka, who sees little utility of some of the centrally-sponsored education schemes in the state in their present form, told HT that his government was efficiently running the meal scheme. He opined, however, "In my view, there is no great demand for meals in the schools. Each family is capable of providing three meals to its children. If the Centre gives us these funds, we can use them to give uniforms, stationery to the children. Education is a state subject. And, the Centre should give the state its share of funds under all education schemes and allow us to do things as per the specific requirements of the children here."
On the contrary, as per the National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3) released in 2009, 66% children below the age of five in Punjab were anaemic, with 44% having moderate and severe anaemia. Also, 37% children had stunted growth (too short for age) due to poor nourishment, according to the last most elaborate health survey carried out in the country.
An education department official, however, attributed the drop in coverage to "fake enrolment" and children who are irregular to school. "Our sample survey has also shown a much lower rate of malnutrition among children in government schools in the state," he claimed.
According to the MHRD mission findings, the meal scheme has overall received tremendous acceptance among the students, parents and teachers. "The children irrespective of their background were found to enjoy the meal by eating together. The parents, particularly the poor, had a very positive view and wanted the scheme to continue with certain improvement such as introduction of variety in menu," it said.
POOR PROGRAMME MONITORING
The scheme lacks proper monitoring and adequate grievance redressal mechanism in Punjab, according to the mission report. "The monitoring is almost missing and rarely any state government official had conducted any monitoring or inspection," according to a summary of findings on the visited schools.
While the state has set up a 24-hour helpline at the state level for complaints, the review mission did not notice the existence of grievance redressal mechanism. Constraints in supply of fuel, engagement of retired personnel, lack of adequate nutritional/calorific value and lack of social audit are some of the hurdles in the implementation of the programme.
However, the acceptance of the scheme among the schoolchildren, parents and teachers, involvement of community, progress in construction of kitchen-cum-stores and installation of fire extinguishers were seen as a big positive by review mission. Besides Punjab, the mission also reviewed the implementation of the scheme in J&K, Jharkhand, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh.
Class act: Undeterred teachers lead by example
The delay in fund releases did not deter teachers in implementing the mid-day meal scheme. A number of them went the extra mile to serve hot meals to children in their schools. Parvinder Kaur, principal, Government Senior Secondary School, Sultanwind, Amritsar, contributed Rs 1 lakh from her pocket for providing meals to children of her school in the absence of funds from the department. And the scheme was not disrupted for even a single day in the school for want of funds, according to the MHRD mission report.
Similarly, Satnam Singh, head teacher, Dholeshah village in the same district, raised Rs 25 lakh for the school building. Besides, he has been paying the electricity bills of the school since 1995 from his own resources. "The ambience and environment of his school matched with the best private schools. The review mission has commended the pro-active role of these teachers in implementation of the scheme and development of schools," the MHRD additional secretary wrote to state.