The mid-day meal scheme, which provides much-needed nutrition to lakhs of children all over the country, faces an acute crisis.
The Department of Food and Public Distribution, headed by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, has told the HRD ministry that from now on wheat and rice for the scheme will cost almost double. Also, it would not be possible to provide foodgrains for any future expansion of the scheme, the ministry was told.
Only last Thursday the Cabinet approved the proposal to expand the mid-day meal scheme to the upper primary level in schools.
The HRD ministry will now have to buy grains at what is called the ‘economic rate’ — which is about Rs 12,000 per metric tonne, compared to Rs 5,650 per metric tonne (the Below Poverty Line Rate, at which foodgrains for the scheme was being bought till now). “Economic rate means that the Food Corporation of India will provide foodgrain at a no-profit-no-loss basis, slightly less than the market rate,” an official said.
Of the total food basket for the scheme, covering 9.5 lakh primary schools, 30 per cent is wheat and 70 per cent is rice. In the last financial year, the ministry procured 19.89 lakh tonnes of rice and 5.47 tonnes of wheat.
This year, the ministry has got Rs 7,342 crore for the scheme, much of which is spent on procurement of food grains from FCI.
The ministry also provides Rs 1.50 per child as cooking cost; in the North Eastern states it is Rs 1.80 per child. The transportation cost from FCI godown to the nearest primary school — at a rate ranging between Rs 75 to Rs 100 per quintal — is also borne by the ministry.
The food department has its own worries. The wheat production has almost remained stagnant —- at about 75 million tons per year – in the last two years, whereas the demand has increased manifold. Similar is the situation with rice, whose procurement price has risen because of increasing international demand. This has prompted the government to import wheat, which could cost Rs 1,200 per tonne in India this year as against Rs 950 last year.
With the additional cost to support the public distribution system for below poverty line families, that constitutes India’s 26.6 per cent population, the department believes it is no more in the financial position to subsidize food grains for the midday meal scheme.
The piquant situation stirred HRD minister Arjun Singh to seek a “significant” increase in allocation for the midday meal scheme from Rs 48,000 crore in the 11th plan to meet the additional costs. “The Planning Commission will need to significantly enhance budgetary allocations towards the midday meal scheme. The allocations currently made the 11th plan period will not suffice,” Singh told full Planning Commission on Thursday. The ministry had demanded Rs 61,858 crore considering the food grains were supplied at the BPL rate.
On the expansion of the mid-day meal scheme, Singh felt that the department would reconsider its suggestion not to supply food grains considering importance of the scheme. HRD ministry officials, however, said talks are being held with the food department to sort out the issues.