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Yes, free lunches

Using cellphones, a project in Uttar Pradesh seeks to plug leaks in the government's flagship Mid-Day Meals scheme. Can it work across India? Anika Gupta asks.

india Updated: Jun 27, 2012 15:50 IST
Anika Gupta

It's noon on a monsoon day in Chirodi, a farming village in Uttar Pradesh (UP), when principal Dilavar Hussain's phone rings.

On the other end of the line, a pre-recorded voice asks him how many mid-day meals his school prepared today. He punches in the number and hangs up. The call takes 30 seconds.

Since June 1, more than 100,000 government school principals receive this call every day, as part of a state technology pilot programme intended to track the government's flagship social sector programme, the Cooked Mid-Day Meals Scheme (MDM).

The world's biggest school lunch programme, MDM, guarantees a hot cooked lunch to every student in a government primary school.

Since it started in 2002, MDM has faced harsh criticism from scholars for having no oversight mechanism. A May 2010 report by the Planning Commission of India found that consistent monitoring of the scheme was "virtually nonexistent." Some NGOs say diversion of food and money runs as high as 25%.

The new technology pilot features a programme that calls every UP school principal every day and asks how many meals the school prepared. Officials can log into a website and view the data.

Although the programme can't fix all MDM's problems, officials say it has already made a difference.

"Six months ago, if you had asked how many meals were being prepared, no one would have been able to tell you," says Amod Kumar, former director general of UP's Mid-Day Meals Authority.

On an average, officials have found that nearly 20% of UP schools aren't preparing any meals, said sources who spoke anonymously.

For Hussain's students - he describes them as the poorest of the poor - the promise of a hot meal is one of the main reasons they come to school.

A PROGRAM IN NEED OF FIXING
The UP government had been looking for a digital monitoring scheme for Mid-Day Meals for several years, with no luck.

"We thought about SMS, we thought about toll-free SMS," says Kumar, who became director-general of UP's Mid-Day Meals in December 2009.

"When we visited villages, there were some issues with supply chain management and flow of funds and grains," he says.

A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur (IIT-K), Kumar had earlier helped set up an e-Governance scheme that allowed rural residents to digitally track applications.

A TIGHT DEADLINE
Two other IIT-K grads, Pallav Pandey and Ambarish Gupta, heard the UP government was looking for a monitoring mechanism. The two friends had returned to India from the US in 2008 to start Knowlarity, a company that specialises in a technology known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

IVR allows computer-generated calling software to respond to the human voice. It's widely used by restaurants, airlines and movie theatres to track timing and make reservations.

Gupta and Pandey's engineers created a special technology that could feed hundreds of phone lines into an IVR program and then into the Internet.

A separate team of software engineers created a website that could display data from these online databases.

"The database architecture is very unique," says Rohit Gupta, director of Technosys, the company that helped design the web site.

"In India, only the Railways are using technology like this."

The UP government organised a call centre to take teachers' queries, and government workers visited each of the state's 822 blocks to train principals to respond to the daily call. The workers also gathered nearly 150,000 mobile phone numbers.

The pilot went live in June, two months after the contract was signed, almost lightning-fast by the standards of any government.

"There was negligible resistance," says Kumar. "It was a pleasant surprise."

TEACHERS MAKE SUGGESTIONS
Knowlarity now holds a 3.5 year contract worth Rs 2.5 crore per year.

"We're already making a profit," says Pandey. A similar deal is in the works with the Punjab government, as well as with other states to monitor the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The UP government's call centre receives nearly 1,500 calls a day from teachers, many with suggestions to improve the programme.

"An option that allows us to indicate the quality of the meal is necessary," says Vinita Puri, principal of Prathnik Vidyalaya Mevala Bhatti-2, also in Chirodi.

Puri keeps the week's menu printed on a blackboard by her desk, so that parents know what their children are entitled to. She says she knows students who enjoy the meals so much they sometimes save some to take home and eat later.

NOT YET A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Scholars are waiting to see administrative change.

"You have the number of meals being reported, but what you do with that number is also important," says Reetika Khera, an economist and activist who has studied the Mid Day Meal Scheme.

"You need to back that with political will and establish a follow-up measure."

Kumar says data about noncompliance goes to block presidents, who are already tightening the screws on village chiefs who abscond with funds.

In future, he says, the programme can be expanded to broadcast the number of meals being prepared to every member of a village, providing multiple layers of oversight and transparency.

Puri insists that the programme allows a principal a way to work around a corrupt village council or village chief.

"Teaching is a government job," she says, surveying her students as they leave school at the end of the day.

"This programme provides us a direct link with the head office."

Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Hindustan Times and Mint to track and understand policy reforms that could, if successful, transform India's efforts at inclusive growth.

Read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/reimaginingindia