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Mid-Day Meal: Restoration Work in Progress Post-COVID, Stunting a Major Concern

Even as the mid-day meal scheme has resumed in West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand, activists say it will be quite a while before the it is back to normal.
mid day meal

Kolkata: Implementation of the mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) in schools and Anganwadis, suspended for over two years and replaced with a provision for dry ration during the COVID-19 pandemic, has officially resumed in the four eastern region states of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand. However, field activists associated with the Right To Food Campaign (RTFC) told NewsClick that it will be quite a while before the implementation of MDMS, which usually suffers from several deficiencies, is back to normal.

Nonetheless, the assessment is premised on the expectation that the fourth phase of Covid, despite evidence of its spreading in recent days, will not throw the states' normalisation efforts out of gear. MDMS was resumed in a limited way from fiscal 2022-23.

Among the four states, it appears that Odisha has come to grips and largely succeeded in normalising hot, cooked food supply to primary, upper primary and other eligible categories of students. In West Bengal, it is "one of the better run schemes".

In Jharkhand, which has a high percentage of malnourished children and a high school drop-out rate among Dalits and Adivasis, MDMS is yet to become operational in some districts. The situation is far from satisfactory in Palamou.

The situation in Bihar warrants very serious organisational efforts to normalise matters. A new issue, which is not there in the three other states, is the merger of schools in "the absence of the required number of teachers". The functioning of schools is still not normal and, therefore, the re-starting of MDMS is not getting the priority it deserves. Moreover, Bihar has a number of drought-prone districts – Gaya, Kaimure, Rohtas, Aurangabad, Jehanabad and Nawada - which experience scarcity of drinking water. This results in a high rate of absenteeism, which, in turn, is reflected in the MDMS coverage over a full year. Overall, the pandemic has played the disruptor, posing a challenge to the state administration.

There is both commonality and difference in the menu determined by the respective state administrations. Budgetary allocation, a larger portion of which comes from the Centre, is a determinant, particularly in times of high inflation. Rice and dal are common on the menu. Odisha and West Bengal have provisions for soya nuggets curry. Jharkhand and West Bengal's menu includes leafy vegetables or mixed vegetables on particular days. Bihar recently made a change in the menu by including pulao with green vegetables on one school day instead of pulao and salad.

With respect to eggs, Odisha scores over the other three states. That state's menu includes eggs on a regular basis. West Bengal and Jharkhand have provision for serving it on only two school days. In certain districts of West Bengal, fish and meat are served on select school days in place of egg. For vegetarian students, Jharkhand has undertaken to supply fruit or milk. In Bihar, egg is given on a particular school day and chicken once a month. In this context, it may be mentioned that development economist and Ranchi University's visiting professor Jean Dreze recently urged the Jharkhand government to ensure that egg finds a regular place in its MDMS menu.

In a letter addressed to Dr Rameshwar Oraon, Jharkhand's finance minister, Dreze sought a provision for one egg per day under the MDMS in schools and Anganwadis. "As you know, Jharkhand's children are among the most undernourished in the world. In addition, we are in the middle of a severe crisis of low school attendance rates. There is no better way of addressing both problems than to provide eggs ... on a daily basis... Experience has shown again and again that pupil attendance shoots up when eggs are provided," Dreze observed in the letter. In the state's schools, eggs are provided twice a week. The system is in place, and it is just a matter of extending the provision of eggs to six days a week. 

"The provision for Anganwadis has been repeatedly delayed or derailed by ill-advised attempts to float tenders for centralised procurement, often fostering corruption. It would be better to rely on local purchase since that model has proved effective for schools," the development economist contended.

Speaking to NewsClick, RTFC state convener of Odisha, Sameet Panda, said, "Anganwadis are functioning fairly satisfactorily, and one reason certainly is that the state government is sensitive about the scheme. Welfare programmes in the extremely backward districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput often failed to deliver in the past, but now complaints are few and far between". 

Anuradha Talwar, RTFC state convener of West Bengal, said the MDMS is one of the better-managed schemes since the Left Front government introduced it in 2003 and the present dispensation is by and large able to carry it forward. Corruption has not vitiated its administration. However, the pandemic has caused a noticeable spurt in the drop-out rate, and it is a challenge to get students back to studies, Talwar told NewsClick

In an evaluation exercise, the West Bengal government has conceded that a higher density of population often affects per capita resource allocation. Provision for milk or one more egg in the Jungle Mahal and Sundarban districts and "distressed" tea estates is desirable to improve nutritional standards, she said.

Ashrfi Nand Prasad, RTFC's Jharkhand convener, said the state government's decision regarding provision for eggs for six days, instead of for two days at present, is being eagerly awaited by parents and "a positive move will certainly help improve enrolment and attendance," he said. Adivasis and Dalit families' wards drop out at the slightest pretext and the egg holds an attraction for them. The arrangements that were in place before the COVID-19 outbreak have to be reactivated, and for this, strict monitoring is a must, Prasad told NewsClick

Rupesh from Bihar RTFC lamented that the execution of MDMS had lost momentum even before the pandemic wave swept the state. "Things were alright up to 2017 because organised monitoring was in place and civil society was active. After that, the execution structure weakened," Rupesh observed while interacting with NewsClick. A new situation arose following the government's scheme to merge schools as "we are given to understand that paucity of teachers is posing a problem."

Some time back, the Bihar administration stipulated that principals/heads of schools should join students and eat the food served. This has been seen as a good move by people. The state RTFC convener hoped the government will respond to representations and tone up MDMS.  

From the minutes of the meeting of project approval board held through video conferencing on April 21 by the Union government's Department of School Education and Literacy to consider the annual work plan and budget for Odisha MDMS for 2022-23, it is seen that value-addition interventions, such as setting up of kitchen gardens, 'Tithi Bhojan' and social audit are to be focus areas. The scope for community participation will widen, and a philanthropic platform will be available to the alumni to promote an environment conducive for new generation of learners.

Be that as it may, the high level of stunting and wasting remain areas of concern for the authorities, even as MDMS is primarily about nutrition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a tweet a few months back, stressed the urgency of curbing "the menace of malnutrition". According to the fifth edition of National Family Health Survey – 2019-20 conducted by the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences at the instance of the Union health ministry, the level of stunting among children under five years had declined to 36% from 38% over the last four years (between the fourth edition and fifth edition), but it remains higher in rural areas at 37% as against 30% in urban areas. The underweight percentage had improved to 32% from 36% and wasting to 19% from 21% over the same period, as per child nutrition indicators. 

But figures are not of any comfort for the authorities because they had targeted to reduce stunting by two per cent a year to 25% by 2022. That would not be possible, according to UN agencies dealing with the matter; in their reckoning, judging by trends recorded, it may be higher than the target at 31.4%. 

Stunting is impaired growth that children experience due to poor nutrition, repeated infection and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Acute poverty is the ultimate reason for it. Wasting is defined as low-weight-for-height, severe the weight loss, higher the risk of death if not treated timely and properly.

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