On October 27, 2017, India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) expressed concern over malnutrition and recommended an increase in protein consumption of children enrolled in the Midday Meal Scheme. The scheme was introduced in all the states of India after 2001, following the Supreme Court’s judgement in order to improve the school enrollment and nutrition of children. The program covers primary government schools (1st to 5th grade) and upper primary government schools (6th to 8th grade). According to various reports and scholarly studies, Midday Meal, the largest school nutrition program in the world with 120 million students, has not only increased enrollment but has also improved nutrition of low-income students (Jayaraman and Simroth 2015; Afridi 2010, 2011; Singh, Park, and Dercon 2014).
Despite the program’s success, only 75% of enrolled students are covered in this program. The Midday Meal Scheme is missing a public vision. A detailed plan on how the goals will be achieved, with target years, will aid the government in its ability to fulfill the scheme’s goals of eliminating malnutrition, reducing nutrition related deficiencies, increasing attendance and closing gaps in infrastructure. Midday Meal Scheme’s success would help India meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals of 2030. Previously, India had not met the UN Millennium Development Goals in terms of health and education with the target year of 2015.
One of the primary objectives of the Midday Meal Scheme is to improve nutrition of school children so that they can concentrate on their studies. According to official government data, 21.9% of the population still lives below the poverty level, and so the concept of a free meal through this scheme acts as a powerful incentive for poor people to send their children to school. Studies have shown that Midday Meal Scheme has improved the nutrition of children, especially those who live in poverty stricken and drought affected areas (Afridi 2010; Singh, Park, and Dercon 2014). Afridi conducted her study in the poverty stricken Chindwara district of Madhya Pradesh and found that, per school day, for as low a cost as 3 cents per child the scheme reduced the daily protein deficiency of a primary school student by 100%, the calorie deficiency by almost 30%, and the daily iron deficiency by nearly 10% (Afridi 2010), In addition, Singh, Park and Dercon found that the MDM program acted as a safety net for children, providing large and significant health gains for children whose families suffered from drought (Singh, Park, and Dercon 2014).
In spite of these gains, nutrition related deficiencies such as malnutrition, stunting, underweight and anemia remain significant among a sizable proportion of children. Midday Meal Scheme’s Fifth Joint Review Mission was the most comprehensive report as 18 states and union territories were covered. The report showed that in the category of moderately malnourished children, the highest number for boys was 31.65% in Tamil Nadu whereas the lowest number for boys was 6.08% in Arunachal Pradesh. These findings are significant as boys who were moderately malnourished were in the range of 6.08%-31.65% in different states. Severely malnourished boys ranged from 30.73% in Uttar Pradesh to 0% in several other states. In addition, moderately malnourished girls ranged from as high as 31.53% in Gujarat to as low as 4.11% in Manipur. Severely malnourished girls ranged from 21.02% in Uttar Pradesh to 0% in several other states. A different Joint Review Mission Report of 2015 was based on visits to the states of Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka and Kerala and concluded that “in most states, the nutritional status of a majority of the students of both sexes was very poor, with high incidence of stunting and underweight for the age of the children, and anemia and micronutrient deficiency.”
In 2000, India pledged eight Millennium Development Goals, out of which was to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. For India, that target was 26%, but malnourishment declined to only 40%. In 2015, India pledged to United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030. Indian government’s premier think-tank NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) states that Midday Meal Scheme would be one of the government’s interventions in achieving this goal. However, there is no publicly available document which mentions how such a goal would be achieved. In the 2017 National Voluntary Review report submitted to the UN, the Indian government states that although children with stunted growth and that are underweight at under age five have declined to 38.4% and 35.7%, the absolute levels still remain high. Though the government mentions that Midday Meal Scheme is one of the interventions used to end hunger and promote nutrition, it fails to mention proportions of stunting, underweight and anemic primary school children, which are addressed in various Midday Meal central and state reports. These problems are not just restricted to children less than 5 years old but also within primary school children.
These reports by the government show that nutrition related deficiencies still remain major challenges to be overcome. The disconnect between the various Midday Meal reports and the government’s efforts to reverse stunting, anemia and malnutrition prevents Midday Meal Scheme from reaching its goals. There needs to be detailed plan with deadlines and a vision so that the goals of ending hunger, malnutrition and nutrition related deficiencies could be achieved by 2030.
One of the major objectives of the Midday Meal Scheme is to increase the enrollment, attendance and retention of primary school children. Studies by scholars such as Afridi (2011) and Jayaram and Simroth (2015) conclude that Midday Meal Scheme leads to an increase in daily school participation in lower grades (Afridi 2011; Jayaraman and Simroth 2015). Despite significant gains in primary school enrollment and completion, enrollment and completion figures drop at the upper primary school level (class 6th -8th). The 2014-2015 report titled, School Education in India, published by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration and Ministry of Human Resource Development, stated that at the primary level, the net enrolment ratio and retention rate are 87.41 and 83.7. However, the net enrolment ratio at the upper primary level is 72.48. So, there is still room for improvement at primary and upper primary levels. The gross enrolment ratio numbers are much higher, with primary level at 100.08 and upper primary level at 91.24. As the class increases, the net enrolment ratio also drops.
UN Millennium goals website states that India made “moderate progress” on the universalization of primary education in 2015. As far as the UN Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 are concerned, the government has pledged that all girls and boys would complete primary and secondary education by 2030. The government states that Midday Meal Scheme is one of its schemes which would help it achieve the 2030 goal. Again, there is no document available which explains how this goal would be achieved. The education objective of the Midday Meal Scheme needs a detailed plan and target years so that 2030 goals could be achieved.
Meal preparation is an important part of the Midday Meal Scheme but there are still delays in the construction of kitchen-cum-stores and the availability of LPG gas. With such serious infrastructural gaps, the objective of the scheme in terms of nutrition and education could not be realized. The document from the 10th Meeting of National Steering-cum-Monitoring Committee (2016) states that out of 1 million sanctioned kitchen-cum-stores, construction in 12% of them has not even started. Construction of kitchen and stores are very important in ensuring safety and hygiene of food. Bihar’s Gandamal school in which 23 children died due to meal poisoning, neither had a kitchen (food was cooked in a verandah) nor a proper storage facility to cook food (Khera 2013). In addition, only 38% of schools have LPG gas available to cook food. The Joint Review Mission reports have continuously raised concerns about the use of firewood still prevalent in schools. Firewood is not only unsafe, but also unclean for the school premises.
So far, Midday Meal Scheme has helped improve enrollment, attendance and nutrition of primary school children. The achievements have been exemplary, but still the lack of universal primary enrollment/attendance, malnutrition and nutrition related illnesses remain major concerns. The scheme needs a public vision so that its objectives of universal primary education and improved nutrition can be fully realized. Simultaneously, the scheme still has major infrastructural gaps which need to be addressed.
By clearly stating target years and detailing a plan on how the goals will be achieved, a public vision of the program would promote accountability and transparency. Studies have shown that when citizens have access to government information, it has resulted in accountability and transparency, such as with the Right to Information Act. Publicly stated goals with various target years would not only prompt the government to achieve the ultimate 2030 goals but would also encourage citizens to ask questions regarding the program’s progress. Journalists, activists and citizens can ask questions from the government if the target year deadlines are not met on time. Publicly stated goals and target years with detailed descriptions of how these goals will be achieved are necessary in making the government accountable. Otherwise, 2030 goals will remain as unfulfilled as the 2015 UN goals.
Afridi, Farzana. 2010. “Child Welfare Programs and Child Nutrition: Evidence from a Mandated School Meal Program in India.” Journal of Development Economics 92 (2):152–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jdeveco.2009.02.002.
Afridi, Farzana. 2011. “The Impact of School Meals on School Participation: Evidence from Rural India.” The Journal of Development Studies 47 (11):1636–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2010.514330.
Jayaraman, Rajshri, and Dora Simroth. 2015. “The Impact of School Lunches on Primary School Enrollment: Evidence from India’s Midday Meal Scheme: Impact of School Lunches on Primary School Enrollment.” The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 117 (4):1176–1203. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjoe.12116.
Khera, Reetika. 2013. “Mid-Day Meals: Looking Ahead.” Economic & Political Weekly (Mumbai, India), August 10, 2013. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/158C9F0788FDDD58?p=AWNB.
Singh, Abhijeet, Albert Park, and Stefan Dercon. 2014. “School Meals as a Safety Net: An Evaluation of the Midday Meal Scheme in India.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 62 (2):275–306. https://doi.org/10.1086/674097.