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Community supervision would correct the flaws in the midday meal scheme
The recent death of children after eating a midday meal laced with insecticide has brought into sharp focus the issue of the structure of this programme, and its potential costs and benefits. First, we must acknowledge the sea of evidence from several studies in India, which shows that when cooked school meals are provided, at minimum standards of quality, they improve students' attendance, increase daily nutritional intakes and have a positive impact on their long-term health outcomes. These benefits are significantly greater if the programme is delivered, in the form of cooked meals on the school premises, directly to the children, rather than through the distribution of take-home rations. So the chorus of voices that point at the incident in Bihar as evidence of a non-functional and even harmful programme that should be replaced with ready-to-eat or dry rations is like the proverbial blind man feeling for the elephant.
Like all public programmes in India, monitoring is an issue. But what can better monitoring achieve if the programme's infrastructure is virtually non-existent? A majority of the rural (and even some of the urban) public schools that were mandated to provide hot cooked meals by the Supreme Court ruling of 2001 are yet to have a pucca room or kitchen for cooking the meals. Cooking, serving and eating utensils are often of poor quality or absent. There are no proper storage facilities for foodgrain procured under the programme. The weak programme infrastructure is a direct consequence of its weak financial structure. The state government's financial contribution to running the programme is routed through the general funds allocated to panchayats to meet their basic civic requirements. And the panchayats have no financial incentive to provide quality meals.
If the state government earmarked funds for the midday meal (MDM) programme, it would ensure that the service providers, that is, the panchayats, do not have the incentive to cut back on the quality of the meals. Further, the current MGNREGA programme funds could be used to build school kitchens and storage area for foodgrain, as was the case with the erstwhile Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana funds in some southern states. MDM cooks almost routinely complain that their salaries have not been paid. Very often, the reason for non-payment is again the disincentives created by the financial structure of the programmes. Since the MGNREGA aims to guarantee rural employment, particularly to women, these programme funds could be used to ensure regular payment of salaries to cooks hired under the MDM programme.