In their new book An Uncertain Glory — India and its contradictions, economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen write that the continued inadequacy of social services such as schooling, medical care and physical services (safe water, electricity, drainage, transport and sanitation) will hit India’s growth prospects in the long-term.
In an interview to The Guardian on the book, Professor Sen said there have been gigantic failures in India and there are reasons for the country to hang its head in shame.
On Tuesday, there was yet another incident that proves the Nobel laureate right. At least 27 children died and dozens admitted to hospitals in Bihar’s Saran district after eating contaminated food served as part of the mid-day meal scheme.
After the incident, news reports said students in other schools stopped eating their mid-day meals and the state government published an advertisement saying that it is mandatory for the principals and cooks of all schools to taste mid-day meals before serving them to children. Apparently, the directive is not new.
The fact that this directive was there all along proves how deep the malaise is. The quality of mid-day meals served under the scheme has been a cause of concern for a long time.
In 2010, a Planning Commission report on the scheme, which in 2013-14 has a total budgetary allocation of Rs. 13,215 crore, and is implemented across 17 states, showed that most schools had inadequate infrastructure, served bad food and lacked basic hygiene.
Another report by professors at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, said that laboratory results showed that nutritional delivery through the meals was low in comparison to daily requirements in general, and, much lower in nutrients in relation to the meal quantity in particular.
Over the years, India’s spending on the social sector has increased, but such incidents show that corruption is rampant in the delivery mechanism. This is not the best of situations to be in as the government readies to implement the mega food security Bill.
How is it going to monitor the scheme? One option could be to engage civil society organisations and private agencies to beef up the monitoring system. Food inspectors may be deployed to periodically check the quality of prepared meals.
Uttar Pradesh is using mobiles to get daily feedback on the scheme. The scheme — Supercaller — receives information gathered through an interactive voice response system and the responses are automatically recorded on the website of the UP Mid-day Meal Authority.
There are ways and ways of fixing the system. Instead of just spending money and believing that this is all it takes to fix the system, the government should do some out-of-the-box thinking and show that it really means business when it comes to nutrition for children.