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Mid-day meals responsible for leap in female enrolments in primary schools

A new study by the Centre for Equity Studies in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnataka underlines the positive impact of the mid-day meal scheme

The Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi, had undertaken a study to assess the quality and scope of the mid-day meal programme across the country. And to determine what improvements are required to fully realise its potential.

The survey, which covered the three states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnataka, was conducted between January and April 2003. Twenty-seven villages were randomly selected in each sample state. Field surveys, that involved detailed interviews with teachers, parents and cooks in the 81 villages, focused on several qualitative and quantitative issues.

The main findings of the report are:
Mid-day meals are in place in all the three sample states. In 76 of the 81 schools, investigators found that mid-day meals were regularly being served. In the five problem schools, temporary bottlenecks were observed. However, aside from the stray instances, the programme runs smoothly in all three states.

All the sample schools have a cook who prepares the meal after obtaining the grain and other ingredients from the teacher or village sarpanch. Facilities for the programme -- cooking sheds, water supply, utensils and so on -- vary between different states and districts, and are, in many cases, unsatisfactory. However, the meals are usually ready by mid-day.

In Rajasthan, ghoogri is served everyday. Ghoogri is a gruel made from boiled wheat mixed with gur (jaggery). Sometimes, oil and peanuts are added. In Chhattisgarh, lunch usually consists of rice and dal or vegetables, with a bit of variation during the week. Karnataka boasts the best menu: apart from rice and sambhar, school children enjoy vegetables, pongal, lemon rice and even sweets like kshira. Some poor households described the meal as "festival food". Second helpings are usually allowed and the quantities seem adequate for the young children.

Boosting school enrolment
Previous studies on primary education in rural India have suggested that mid-day meals enhance school participation, especially among girls. One recent study estimates that the provision of mid-day meals at school is associated with a 50% reduction in the number of out-of-school girls. The findings of this survey corroborate those of the earlier studies.

Accounting for all 81 sample schools, Class 1 enrolment rose by 15% between July 2001 and July 2002. This surge is driven mainly by impressive jumps in female enrolment in Chhattisgarh (17%) and Rajasthan (29%).

Provisional enrolment data for Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, supplied by the education department, also suggests major leaps in female enrolment in 2002-2003: 19% and 18%, respectively. This is a major improvement on school enrolment during the 1990s, which was about 2%. A bulk of the increase is likely to be a reflection of the impact of mid-day meals.

There is also plenty of informal evidence to suggest that the prospect of mid-day meals improves daily school attendance, not just annual enrolment. Many parents and most teachers report that it is easier to send their children off to school each morning, especially the younger ones.

Teachers report that the programme makes it easier to retain children in school after the lunch-break, since children who go home for lunch often do not return to school, especially if distances are great. Now, according to a large majority (78%) of the teachers interviewed, afternoon attendance is roughly the same as morning attendance.

Ending hunger
The survey found that mid-day meal programmes scored on two nutrition-related fronts. Many children go to school on an empty stomach and find it hard to concentrate in the classroom beyond a few hours. This invariably affects their performance. Providing them with meals puts an end to the phenomenon of `classroom hunger'.

Noon meals have also solved the problem of hunger in general. For instance, this year the programme helped lessen the possibility of child under-nutrition in a number of drought-affected areas. Poor households headed by landless labourers or widows value the assurance of one free wholesome meal a day for their children. In tribal areas too, where hunger is endemic, the contribution of school meals to food security is crucial.

Aiding the process of socialisation
Mid-day meals contribute to socialisation, in a caste and class-ridden society. It has been noted that the experience of sharing a common meal helps erode caste prejudices and class inequities.

The survey found little evidence to suggest that caste discrimination was prevalent in the context of mid-day meals. It found no cases of separate sitting arrangements, or of preferential treatment being given to upper-caste children.

Most parents too welcomed the arrangement. Teachers confirmed that parents rarely objected to their children sharing meals with children from other castes. And, among disadvantaged castes, very few parents felt that their children had ever experienced caste discrimination in the context of the mid-day meal.

The survey found that there does seem to be upper-caste resistance to the appointment of dalit cooks. In Karnataka, although half the cooks in the sample villages are dalits, there seems to be wide social acceptance of this arrangement. In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, dalit cooks are largely confined to schools with no upper-caste children. The survey reported instances of active parental resistance to the appointment of dalit cooks, as in Kolu Pabuji (Jodhpur district, Rajasthan) where a Rajput parent threw sand into the mid-day meal because a Meghwal woman had cooked it. However, these are stray instances.

Promoting gender equality
Mid-day meals promote gender equality in two ways. Since they contribute to an increase in female enrolment over male enrolment, they reduce the gender gap in education. The system also creates employment opportunities for poor women. In the sample schools, an overwhelming 68% of cooks are women, and most of them come from underprivileged backgrounds. Not surprising, as the work is fairly demanding and salaries are low. In addition, the scheme guidelines often state that in the appointment of cooks priority should be given to the disadvantaged. In Karnataka, for instance, the guidelines clearly specify that all cooks must be women, with preference given to widows.

School meals also contribute to the liberation of women. When children are assured a hot nutritious meal outside the home, mothers (especially those who work, or those with no domestic support) are freed from the task of preparing noon meals.

Regional variations
Investigations reveal marked contrasts in the standard of the mid-day meal programme across the country. Though these are not fully reflected in this survey, as it was confined to three states, some important differences are apparent.

The quality of the school-meal programme is notably better in Karnataka than in Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan. This is not surprising since the general standard of schooling is higher in the former state. For instance, a majority of schools in Karnataka have more than two teachers as well as more than two classrooms, a rarity in either Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan.

Karnataka has made good progress in setting up the infrastructure for the provision of mid-day meals. Most cooks enjoy the assistance of a `helper'; 31% of schools already have a pucca kitchen. In contrast, the mid-day meal infrastructure in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are poor -- cooks have to cope in the most challenging circumstances, without basic facilities such as a helper, kitchen or the requisite utensils.

In a primary school in Bamhu, in Chhattisgarh's Bilaspur district, for example, the mid-day meal is prepared in a soot-covered classroom using a makeshift stove. With few utensils at his disposal, and no helper, the cook gets the children to cut vegetables. The teacher reports that no teaching takes place after lunch as the classroom becomes filthy.

Rajasthan fares the best in terms of food logistics and monitoring -- all the schools, even the remotest ones, reported timely delivery of grain, and the teachers invariably described the quality of grain as "above average". The state, which made a concerted effort to implement the mid-day meal programme, following a Supreme Court order in November 2001, is a good example of what can be achieved with adequate political will.

However, despite this commitment, there is an acute shortage of funds -- the government spends only 50 paise per child per day on recurrent costs, compared to the Re 1 spent by Karnataka.

In Chhattisgarh, the survey observed that commitment to the school meals programme appeared to be half-hearted, both politically and financially. Casual implementation, along with inadequate arrangements and a lack of monitoring could be reasons why the programme has failed to enthuse teachers here. Nearly half of them felt that mid-day meals "disrupt classroom processes". Close to one-third of the sample teachers in Chhattisgarh oppose the scheme, compared with only 10% in both Karnataka and Rajasthan.

Despite the advantages of the mid-day meal scheme, its detractors have advanced two arguments against it, which cannot be dismissed lightly.

It is often said that mid-day meals pose a health hazard. And while this cannot be dismissed outright, the findings of the survey provide a balanced assessment. Pupils do feel unwell occasionally after consuming a school meal -- about 10% of parents say this happened to their children at least once during the preceding 12 months. The problem is especially common in Rajasthan, where ghoogri is served everyday. This is because ghoogri, which needs to be boiled for several hours, is hard to digest when eaten undercooked.

Ninety per cent of children had no problems, and, in most cases, the problems experienced by the other 10% were not serious. Cases of occasional indigestion at school carry little weight against the enormous health benefits that may be expected from higher school attendance and reduced hunger in the classroom.

Another oft-heard complaint is that mid-day meals disrupt classroom activities, with teachers having to spend their time cooking instead of teaching. The survey found that cooks have been appointed in all the sample schools. It did not come across any school where the teachers doubled as chefs.

Still, many of the teachers interviewed did spend a fair amount of time organising and supervising mid-day meals. Mid-day meals could disrupt classroom processes when the infrastructure is inadequate. For instance, in schools that have no cooking shed, mid-day meals are often cooked close to where the children are meant to be studying. Not surprisingly, teachers complain that the sight and smell of hot food distracts their pupils.

Tamil Nadu: Setting the standards
The field survey of the three states was supplemented by informal visits to nine primary schools in rural Tamil Nadu. These covered the three districts of Kancheepuram, Nagapattinam and Dharmapuri.

The mid-day meal programme in these schools is an outstanding example of what can be achieved when quality safeguards are in place. Each school had a cooking shed and a paid staff of three women -- a cook, a helper and an organiser who looked after the logistics and accounts. The organisers claimed that mid-day meals had been served on time every day of the year since the inception of the scheme in 1982.
Mid-day meals here seem to enjoy the support of the entire village community as well as the teachers. With sound arrangements in place, the meals do not interfere with teaching duties, and most teachers appreciate the positive aspects of providing school lunches. As one of them put it, mid-day meals are conducive to "improved education".


Astonishingly, the unit cost of mid-day meals in Tamil Nadu is not particularly high -- about Re 1 per child per day, the same as in Karnataka. Raising unit costs to this level would cost a mere Rs 14 crore per year in Chhattisgarh, and Rs 77 crore per year in Rajasthan.

Conclusions
The experience so far clearly shows that mid-day meals have much to contribute to the well-being and future of Indian children. However, qualitative improvements are urgently required if the meals are to achieve their full potential. The survey findings suggest the following:

  • Financial allocations need to be raised. Badly funded programmes, like those in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, miss a vital opportunity to promote important social goals at a relatively low cost. A moderate amount of additional expenditure could radically enhance the quality of mid-day meals.
  • The infrastructure for mid-day meals requires urgent improvement. Adequate infrastructure is particularly crucial to avoid the disruption of classroom processes, and also to ensure proper hygiene.
  • Close supervision and regular inspections are essential to achieve higher quality standards. Better monitoring would also help eradicate petty corruption, such as the pilferage of food by various intermediaries.
  • The socialisation value of mid-day meals could be enhanced by firmly dealing with instances of social discrimination. Clear guidelines for the selection of cooks need to be issued and enforced. The lunchtime routine could be used to impart various good habits to children, such as washing one's hands before and after eating.
  • More varied and nutritious lunch menus are recommended, particularly in Rajasthan. The need to enhance the nutritional content of mid-day meals applies to all states.
  • The mid-day meal programme could be extended and linked to related programmes such as micronutrient supplementation, health services and nutrition education. For example, in Karnataka, iron and de-worming tablets are provided at school. Tamil Nadu has gone further in this direction -- school children get regular health checkups and free treatment for illnesses such as anaemia, worms and scabies.
  • Importantly, truant states need to be persuaded to initiate the mid-day meal programme. This applies especially to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where school attendance and nutrition levels are abysmal. These states have pleaded lack of funds as a reason for their negligence, but experience elsewhere shows that gathering the requisite resources is really a matter of political will.

-- InfoChange News & Features, October 2003