In February this year, nine students of a government school in Delhi fell sick after consuming a mid-day meal which allegedly had a dead rat in it. While these students from Delhi managed to survive their illness, in 2016, children from a primary school in Mathura didn’t. Of the 127 that fell sick after drinking purportedly adulterated milk as a part of the mid-day meal, two of them died.
That the mid-day meal has played an important role in enhancing enrolment, retention and attendance in schools is doubtless. To that effect, it has surely done its part in helping eradicate hunger. The incidents in Delhi and Mathura, however, show that there is a lot that the government still needs to do to when it comes to providing “safe, nutritious and sufficient food” to everybody or of ending malnutrition by 2030 as promised by it under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
According to Dr Vandana Prasad, who is the national convenor of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and member of the Right to Food campaign, globally, the right to food in effect means that governments should be providing nutritious food and not just anything they like. “For children, it is even more important because they are growing,” she adds.
After Supreme Court orders, nutrition has gradually become a part of what is known as the Right to Food in India.
In 2001, every government and government assisted primary school was asked to provide a hot-cooked midday meal to every child on at least 200 days in a year under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). Furthermore, this meal was required to contain 300 calories and 8-12 grams of protein. With the enactment of the National Food Security Act in 2013, the nutritional content of food (calorie and protein content requirement has since been increased for MDMS) has become an integral part of the right to food in the country.
Yet, over a decade after the Supreme Court passed guidelines regarding nutritional standards of the mid-day meal, a joint review mission set up by the government found that mid-day meals had little impact on malnutrition among schoolchildren. Surveys conducted under the mission during 2013-14 found a large number of elementary school children severely malnourished in as many as 9 states.
There are many reasons for this. Says Prasad, “Providing nutrition through one hot-cooked meal is not easy.” The only way she says to deliver the necessary calories to students is by adding animal-based proteins.
But providing animal-based proteins within a limited budget is not easy either. Recalling her experiences as part of a committee in Delhi that looked at the issue of improving nutrition in MDMS she says, “They made an attempt. But then finally the constraints remain the same- we want to do it within the same cost, we don’t want to do this, don’t want to do that. Then it’s not that easy.” It was only after allocating additional funds from its own coffers that the Delhi government finally decided to incorporate eggs and bananas in its scheme.
That there is no provision to independently monitor the quality of the meals anymore is another problem according to Dipa Sinha, a convener of the Right to Food Campaign.
“Other than regular programme data of the midday meal, there is no independent monitoring that seems to be happening. And that is a problem. There are of course the macro issues also – that currently with the amount of budget, it’s difficult to do eggs and all,” Sinha told YKA.
For Biraj Patnaik, who was until recently the Principal Adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court, the lack of investment in the scheme is the ‘biggest issue’. As the budget allocation for the scheme hasn’t increased proportionately to the rise in the cost of food, he estimates that the allocation has been effectively slashed by 20-25 percent. “The issue is there is no money,” he told YKA, “What will you monitor?”
Patnaik also identifies the recent circulars allowing NGOs and centralised kitchens for cooking and supply of hot-cooked meals in even rural areas as a problem. This was earlier only allowed in urban areas due to space constraints within school premises. Prasad, who worked with the Delhi government back then, had found problems with such kitchens. “Rotis became hard, food sometimes had to travel for 5-6 hours, and in summers it was not quite palatable by the time it got there,” she told YKA.
The insistence on Aadhaar cards for providing the benefits of MDMS is also something that would exclude children from marginalised backgrounds from getting food, experts believe.
Experts believe that issuing specific guidelines that recommend certain fruits, animal based proteins and leafy vegetables could help solve the issue of nutrition. Sinha says monitoring menus regularly in a more stringent manner and periodically testing samples for nutrient content may also be helpful in ensuring that such guidelines are followed.
According to Patnaik, including ‘nutrition education’ in the curriculum may also help spread awareness among children about the quantity and quality of their meals. Procuring produce from local farmers and creating vegetable gardens in the school are also ways in which, he says, healthy, hygienic, and nutrient-rich food might reach children.
And obviously, there needs to be a concerted effort to increase investment in the scheme. “Basically, decentralisation, sufficiency of investment, and allowing for quality, locally available food rather than thinking in terms of centrally packaging food is a better approach,” Prasad told YKA.
The formidable goal for ending malnutrition and ensuring every school-going child gets a nutritious, healthy meal cannot be accomplished without the government actively pursuing this matter. As a signatory of the SDGs, it is India’s duty to actively work towards ending ‘all forms of malnutrition’ by 2030. With centralised kitchens and stagnant budgets, experts don’t think that is possible. But with proper fund allocation and through ensuring access for all to nutritious food, things can surely be changed. It’s high time India takes the requisite steps, so that no child dies on account of poor food quality or malnutrition.