Mid-day lessons

Government rankings of states' performance on mid-day meals offer insights on what works best.

There has been introspection about the design and implementation of the mid-day meal scheme in the wake of the Gandaman tragedy in Bihar in July this year, when 23 children, aged between four and 12, died after consuming contaminated food at school. Questions over whether the state is capable of delivering nutritious and hygienic lunches, especially in villages and districts with bad roads and no cold storage facilities, have led to stakeholders re-examining the functioning even the feasibility of the scheme across the country. In this context, the first-time ranking of states by the Union ministry of human resource development on the basis of their performance in implementing the mid-day meal scheme, offers some surprising results.

Karnataka comes out on top, and Bihar, despite the relatively recent revival of its primary school system, is at number five. Tamil Nadu, where the national template of the mid-day meal programme originated, has underperformed. And Delhi, despite its high visibility, was at the bottom, with dismal scores in funds utilisation and the infrastructure and health categories. Unpacking the data on state performance should focus attention on what works and what doesn't, in a scheme that has a proven effect in increasing enrolment of students. For instance, most states do poorly in the monitoring and supervision category. Even Tamil Nadu, with its much-vaunted local administrative structures and dedicated district officials to monitor implementation, scores abysmally low. But the rankings also confirm that the experience of mid-day meals varies widely across India.

While it would be a mistake to replicate too many operational details from the mid-day meal manual of a relatively successful state, and local conditions must be factored into how the scheme is implemented, it is possible to distil some shared lessons. Infrastructural problems need to be addressed, from non-availability of foodgrains to the absence of separate kitchen stores and cooks, which can lead to teachers having to step in to cook the meals, adversely affecting the quality of instruction they are able to offer students. The involvement of strong decentralised institutions in the mid-day meal scheme in Karnataka for instance, via mothers' self-help groups that oversee implementation likely contributed to its improved performance. Effective monitoring of such a massive administrative undertaking requires political and community ownership, and too often, the principal and teachers are the only active members of the school management committees whose task it is to monitor the scheme. Mobilising these committees to foster greater community involvement is essential in improving outcomes.

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