All social equity programs are started with a view to make an impact on the social problems at grassroots levels. However their effectiveness depends on the program structure and strategies adopted to address the issue. In a country like India with wide cultural diversity, no single program can make a substantial dent at grassroots level without the dedication of the implementing agencies. One such project that is being undertaken by the government to address the social issues related to education in India is Mid-day Meal Scheme.
The Mid-day meal scheme can be traced for its origin way back to pre-independent India in 1925 when some school authorities in Madras district implemented the noon meal program to take care of the students need. Similar program was started in Kolkata in 1927 and Kerala in 1941. This scheme was formally adopted by the government in 1958 in independent India. However it was only in 1982 that the government undertook serious step to promote the scheme. It was then implemented with the objective to universalize the scheme in all the states with decentralized features. It was implemented in all government run primary school with the help of local authorities playing the role of implementing agencies. This was further expanded from primary age group to cover the students between the 6-14 years. By 1995, most of the South Indian states had implemented the scheme.
In 1995, the government reoriented its strategy when the stress was paid on the spread of literacy drive making it apt time to reorient the strategy. The scheme provided the government with the best alternative method to not only increase the enrolment of school going children but also addressing the other social problems such as eradication of poverty, eradication of malnourishment and undernourishment among the children. It also provided the government with the opportunity to increase the coverage of the social program with minimal cost incurred which the other poverty schemes failed to do as it was implemented through the primary school. Another benefit it entailed was giving the opportunity to address the issues at the grass root level.
The objectives and strategies of the program have been changed to suit and adjust to the national policy objectives. Initially the scheme sought to integrate the noon meals schemes that were being already implemented by some States and to cover all the States. Under the scheme, the children were given free supply of 100 grams of food grain per child per day. The State governments were required to meet the costs of infrastructure and the cooking cost. Initially, the scheme was introduced in the 2,368 blocks where the RPDS or Employment Guarantee Schemes (EGS) were being implemented and in forty low female literacy (LFL) blocks all over India. Local bodies were declared to be the implementing agencies, with supervision from the district and State levels of the government’s administrative machinery. However with the initial success of the program, the government was encouraged to implement it in all the states.
In 2000, the government’s national policies were focused on making the education and access to education a basic right of its citizen. Thus, literacy drive was launched and the government increased spending on educational infrastructure substantially. A number of primary schools were opened especially in rural areas. The existing one got the fund for improving the infrastructure by setting up buildings. The middle schools and high schools were also covered under the national literacy mission. Despite much spending, the government could not increase the literacy rate as it only helped in increasing the enrollment without substantial decrease in dropout rates.
Thus the re-strategizing of Mid-day meal scheme was done. The authorities combined it with the National Literacy Mission. Also the form was changed as now the school authorities were given the responsibility of providing the cooked food based on nutritional norms prescribed by the UN. This strategy was implemented with the twin objective. First it helped increase in enrolment and retention at the same time it also addressed the issue related to reduce the chronic hunger and malnourishment among the school going age group of children. The Mid-day meal scheme helped in increasing the learning capabilities of the children. Also the parents did not have to bear the additional cost of food.
Initially, the State governments were advised to derive finance from poverty alleviation schemes such as JRY for providing necessary infrastructure and meeting the costs. But, from April 1999 onwards, responsibility for raising their share of funding was transferred to States and Union Territories. In December 2003, Planning Commission of India asked the States to earmark a minimum of 15 per cent of additional Central assistance under the Pradhan Mantri Gramodaya Yojana (PMGY) for the financial requirements of converting grains into cooked meals.
The scheme also helped in impacting the social problem associated with the rural infrastructure. Thus the gender equity issue and social equity was also addressed as the scheme helped in making the children learn the sharing basis by sitting together and eating from the common kitchen. The school enrolment improved substantially as both the genders entering the literacy drive. This also increased the school enrolment for irrespective of the caste and cultural groups. At the level of India as a whole, the number of children covered under the MDMS rose gradually from 10.36 crore in 2001 – 02 to10.87 crore in 2004 – 05, and then registered a sharp increase to 11.94 crore in 2005 – 06.
MDMS also has the potential for creating awareness among the children about hygiene and clean environment. The Mid-day meal scheme in school provided an opportunity to educate students about the importance of washing hands and plates, of hygienic toilets and of maintaining a clean environment in and around the school. Similarly, a participatory MDMS, where parents will be involved in monitoring the programme, can play an indirect role in improving basic knowledge about nutrition and elementary education among the parents of school-going children.
Despite massive achievement, the scheme is marked with a number of weaknesses and limitations. The scheme lacks the onus to cover the children out of school and drop outs. This is major issue in making the right to education and right to food a fundamental right of the citizen. Another problem associated is resource to fund the scheme is limited. Most of the states failed to meet the cost incurred to provide the cooked food. Also in absence of adequate infrastructure, the scheme could not be provided to many schools. The infrastructural problems associated with the scheme were in terms of not only physical infrastructure as most schools did not even have the proper building and shades to carry out the project. Moreover the human laborer required for cooking the food also lacked, for which the government paid a meager amount.
Thus some of these limitations and weaknesses are being looked into and adequate measures are being taken to step up efforts to make the scheme a big success.