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Ever since the Supreme Court directed states to introduce mid-day meals in government-run primary schools in 2001, school meals have been a popular intervention in education. Much of the evidence suggests that mid-day meal schemes have led to an increase in enrolment and attendance. The mid-day meal, though, was envisaged not just as a means to get more students into school and to keep them there, but also as a way to encourage social mixing between castes and religious groups. A status report on discrimination in schools, sponsored by the ministry of human resource development, shows that whatever their intentions, it is difficult to divorce mid-day meal schemes from the contexts within which they operate.
Forty-one independent monitoring institutes observed caste- and gender-based discrimination in more that 180 schools across five states over the last two years. They found that children from SC/ST communities were routinely segregated from other children at meal time, and that food cooked by SC/ST cooks was often refused by many children or their parents. It can be no surprise that the five states being monitored — Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat — are some of the states where caste is most deeply entrenched in the fabric of everyday life.