India’s mid-day meal scheme (MDS) — the world’s largest school-feeding programme of its kind — is one of the government’s showpiece programmes. It is also one of the most critical ones since it targets children, the key human resource that every economy banks on for sustained growth. The scheme, which was set up in 1995 to ensure that hunger didn’t prevent children from attending school (nearly 120 million children are fed daily), have been successful in many ways but there have been cases of glaring shortfalls too.
In the recent past, there have been several incidents of food poisoning in schools across the country either due to bad quality of food or unhygienic cooking conditions. Last week, 90 children were taken ill after consuming milk under the MDS at a primary school in Agra. An enquiry into the scheme by the Accountability Initiative, part of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, found that too many layers of government were involved in the scheme, resulting in poor information, coordination and monitoring.
Every scheme needs constant evaluation to weed out problems, iron out implementation issues and improve accountability. It is only then it remains effective. The good news is that has just happened with this scheme: Last week, the Centre notified several new rules, making it a right for students between six and 14 years to get a meal that adheres to the prescribed nutritional standards. The state governments will be held accountable for non-delivery of service: If a school fails to serve food to students for three consecutive school days or five days a month — such instances are not rare — the state government will have to pay a food security allowance as compensation. The government has now insisted on monthly random testing by the Food and Drugs Administration department of every state to ensure the nutritive value of the meals given to students.
Over the years, several studies have indicated that India has achieved high gains thanks to the scheme. It has not only improved health outcomes for children, but has also contributed to significant educational gains. In fact, the differential gains for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds suggest high benefits from targeting this programme towards poorer areas, in order to increase the enrolment of children who would otherwise be unable to attend school. The new rules will, hopefully, ensure that the scheme becomes far more effective than it already is, an assurance our children richly deserve.