Sixty million children in India are malnourished. The mid-day meal scheme, however, does not reach many of them because of policy restraints. The time is ripe for change
Phulkeriya is a hungry six-year-old. All she gets every morning before scampering off to school is a bowl of rice sprinkled with salt. On a lucky day she gets biscuits or dalia during a classroom break. But if there is a resource crunch in the Kutaru village school in the Bastar tribal belt of Chhattisgarh, there is no tiffin. Martha, a Class V student in a school in the Ambikapur district of the Sarguja tribal area is no better off. Though both girls are among the 60 million malnourished children in India, they are kept out of the world’s largest school-feeding programme.
Policy guidelines prevent officialdom from giving the likes of Phulkeriya and Martha a nutritious — and often only — meal of the day. Children who attend non-government aided schools are not covered by the central government-funded flagship mid-day meal scheme. Launched in August 1995, the programme today provides 12 crore students in over nine lakh primary schools one cooked meal of 300 calories and 8-10 grams of protein content. Some states have added egg, fruits, essential micronutrients and de-worming medicine to the menu.
Why not modify the policy so that the most needy can benefit? There can be no better time to do it than now. The working group on elementary education (of which the mid-day meal scheme is a part) is preparing the strategy for the 11th Plan period (2007-12). It is expected to submit its recommendations by end-September.
Half of the malnourished children live in rural India. Boys and girls from the scheduled tribes account for 56.2 per cent of the malnourished, while 53.2 per cent belong to the scheduled caste. When it comes to malnourished children, there are significant inequalities not only across socio-economic groups but also across states. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan account for about 43 per cent of malnourished children in India. In these states, more so in the tribal belts, one out of every two children is underweight. It is easy to figure out the children government programmes need to cover urgently.
Of every three malnourished child in the world one lives in India. The rate of malnutrition in our country is 47 per cent, making it worse off than the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. This highlights the fact that the level of income is not always related to malnutrition rates. As India moves towards becoming a global power, it still has to face the fact that 46 per cent of its under-three age-group are too small for their age and 47 per cent underweight.
If this scenario has to change, then Martha and Phulkeriya have to start
getting their daily platter of khichdi in school, never mind whether they are being provided by a charitable organisation, an NGO or a missionary. The recommendation for the 10th Plan period, while making a case for including private school children in the mid-day meal programme, suggested that the selection of "institutions may be done on a case-to-case basis of those institutions whose efforts for universalisation of elementary education has been commendable".
HRD officials express concern at increasing the cover of the mid-day meal scheme to include children from non-government aided schools. Most worrisome is the lack of cooperation from states for 'political reasons'. This amounts to some state governments not being too keen to extend help to schools run by certain minority groups while others want to include only a particular minority.
Lack of funds, difficulty in monitoring and accountability are other concerns widely expressed by the ministry. All of them are surmountable given the number of schools that fall into the category. According to the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, only 15 per cent of recognised elementary schools are private institutions. Of these, 62 per cent do not receive any aid from the government. Obviously, the number of children attending such schools is not a staggering one.
Feeding underprivileged children from these schools can't be that much of a financial burden given the inflow of revenue from the education cess imposed since 2004. The estimated receipts for 2006-07 of the Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh are Rs 8,746 crore. The budgetary allocation for the mid-day meal scheme has shown a 60 per cent increase from 2005-06 to 2006-07.
The money is there. But what about the political will? Should Martha and Phulkeriya go hungry only because of a flawed policy?