In the early 1960s, while on a visit to Cheranmahadevi town in Tirunelveli district, then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K. Kamaraj noticed a boy herding cattle and asked him why he was not in school. The boy replied: "If I go to school will you give me food to eat? I can learn only if I eat." His response gave birth to the Mid Day Meal Scheme. Today, it has become the largest schoolchild feeding programme in the world, covering 110 million students in 1.2 million schools.
When he became the chief minister in 1982, M.G. Ramachandran expanded Kamaraj's initiative across Tamil Nadu. Initially seen as a costly populist measure, it began to get noticed as enrolment and attendance in schools rose. In 1995, the then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao suggested that the Mid Day Meal Scheme be implemented across the country. This led to the birth of the National Programme for Nutrition Support to Primary Education. The programme aims to increase school enrolment, attendance and retention while eradicating malnutrition and empowering womeQn through employment.
Has the programme delivered? "It has," says Gaya Prasad, Mid Day Meal Director in the Department of School Education and Literacy, part of the Human Resources and Development Ministry. Prasad points out that many more children are going to school now. And unlike earlier, girl children are also being enroled, thanks to the free meals. "In 2001 the literacy gap between male and female students was 25 per cent. Now it is 16 per cent," he says.
577,000 number of kitchens and stores that have been set up as a result of the National Programme For Nutrition Support To Primary Education
It has also generated employment. Close to 577,000 kitchens and stores have been set up and 2.4 million cooks/helpers, mostly women, have been employed. The national programme requires the Centre to supply foodgrains free of cost while states have to bear the cost of other ingredients, labour and infrastructure. However, in the initial stages, implementation was patchy. Not many states opted for the scheme citing various budgetary constraints. Instead they offered students dry rations. In November 2001, the Supreme Court directed every state government and Union Territory to implement the programme in government and government-aided primary schools. In the 2007/08 Union Budget the scheme was extended to the upper primary (6th to 8th standard) level as well.
The project has received significant funding from the government - the 11th Five Year plan had an outlay of Rs 48,000 crore while the budgetary allocation for 2012/13 was Rs 11,937 crore. Today, nearly 72 per cent of students at the primary and upper primary level are covered by the programme nationally. In states such as Kerala and Goa, the coverage is close to 100 per cent. But implementation is still a challenge in some states. Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and, ironically, Tamil Nadu, are some of the states where coverage is lower than the national average.
Oddly, for a programme of this magnitude, there has been no study to measure the nutrition levels or increase in enrolment, attendance and retention of the schoolchildren. "Since the Mid Day Meal is just one of the meals, it is difficult to evaluate the effect on the nutritional side," says Prasad.
But some indication of its success can be gleaned from the Planning Commission's Approach Paper for the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17). "For the age group six to 14 years in all of rural India, the percentage of children who are not enrolled in school has dropped from 6.6 per cent in 2005 to 3.5 per cent in 2010," notes the paper. "The proportion of girls in the age group 11 to 14 years who were out of school has also declined from 11.2 per cent in 2005 to 5.9 per cent in 2010." Food for thought there.