To prevent another Gandaman

Midday meal rankings are a good first step. They need to be done right.

The ministry of human resource development's midday meal (MDM) department ranked the performance of state governments using 15 indicators, last month. Performance-based ranking is a well-recognised tool for promoting accountability in government service delivery. Rankings of this nature help highlight performance quality, induce competitiveness and, perhaps most importantly, enable an analysis of what works, what doesn't and what gaps need to be plugged. The rankings are thus an important first step toward addressing the many governance failures that contributed to the tragedy in Gandaman in Bihar in July. But there is much that can be done to improve the ranking process.

First, the biggest challenge in developing a ranking system is the quality of data available. Last year, Accountability Initiative conducted a research study which tracked money and expenditure in the midday meal programme in four districts in north India. Finding reliable, high-quality data was the biggest challenge. Crucial financial documents like monthly progress reports are often not maintained at the district level. And even when reports are compiled, the quality is variable. We came across monthly reports where the numbers that were reported were based on a formula devised by the authorities rather than on the actual releases by the district.

In another case, we found that the annual statement was missing information for some months because the concerned officer's hard disk had crashed. We also found that financial data is often recorded in multiple documents, which are "updated" as and when new information is received from schools. However, there is no systematic method to this updation and often the numbers don't add up. We faced similar problems at the school level. Our surveyors encountered schools where passbooks and other accounting documents had been "stolen" or "lost in the flood" and where documents were available, crucial pieces of information like the opening balance (money and food grains left over from previous years) were simply not recorded.

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