The recent death of students after consuming mid-day meals is nothing new. Two children had died in Panipat in March. Corruption too is endemic. Eight truck loads of rice meant for the mid-day meals were seized in Bulandshahr. These were being diverted to the black market. An evaluation by the Delhi government has found that the mid-day meals were served less than 50 days instead of the designated 200 days in one-fourth of its schools.
One cannot expect it to be different. Kautilya says it is as difficult to determine the amount embezzled by the government servants as it is to find out how much water the fish has drunk in the pond. Programmes like the mid-day meals provide yet another opportunity to government servants to bleed the coffers of the government.
It would be better to give the students food vouchers with which the household can buy foodstuffs and provide tiffin to the students. It is propagated that the households will sell the food vouchers in the grey market and use the money for buying liquor or mobile phones. Thus it is said that a programme like food stamps, which is successful in the US, would not be suitable for India. It is forgotten though that the money saved by the household by provision of meals in the school can also be diverted for mobile phones.
The actual objective of schemes like the mid-day meals is to keep the poor enmeshed in poverty perpetually while creating a façade of pro-poor policies. The salaries of teachers in government schools are about five times that of private schools but the results are about a half of what private schools achieve. One reason for the poor performance of government schools is that poorer students go to these schools. The environment at home is not as conducive for studies as in middle class households. However, the actual reason for the poor performance of government schools is lack of accountability. The pay packets of the teachers bear no connection whatsoever with the results. Teachers are more focused on their investments in the share markets or on making leakages from the mid-day meals than on teaching students.
Poor households are tempted to shift the students from private to government schools. He remains uneducated perpetually — courtesy the mid-day meal scheme.
The government machinery is propagating that the happenings in Bihar are a consequence of bad management. It is being said that stricter monitoring by the parents would ensure the delivery of good quality meals. This approach is self-contradictory. If the parents are so backward that they cannot be relied upon to purchase food with vouchers; then, pray, how may we expect them to control the vagaries of government servants? The purpose of such antics is to deflect attention from the fundamental malaise of government schools and to ensure that poor students fail repeatedly. Also, it is hoped that people will continue to cast votes in favour of the ruling party tempted by the mid-day meals.
The entire proceeds of value added taxes are being used to pay salaries to government teachers in many states. State governments have little money left for investment in roads or libraries. The poor suffer a double whammy as a result. Their children fail in government schools and the adults remain poor because they cannot reach their produce to the city market. It is time that the entire government school system is dismantled and children given vouchers with which they can purchase education from a school of their choice; and the parents given food vouchers with which they buy rations and prepare food for their children.
Bharat Jhunjhunwala is former Professor of Economics, IIM, Bangalore
The views expressed by the author are personal