Bitter aftertaste

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.

This does not mean that schemes such as this one cannot point the way to a better future. Crucially, study after study has found that mid-day meals have been successful in achieving significant gains in nutritional and learning outcomes for children, though the results vary from state to state. Tamil Nadu, for instance, where the idea of the mid-day meal originated, has pursued social equity by employing Dalit cooks and backing up the measure with a larger political follow-through and determination. In Andhra Pradesh, too, the mid-day meal has seen greater participation from Dalits, perhaps due to the effective political mobilisation of Dalits in the state and the government's initiative in drawing local organisations into the operation of the scheme. These cases show that breaking bread together could still be one way to address the invisible boundaries that separate communities.

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