The midday meals scheme is a unique programme designed to improve nutritional status and health of school children in the country. The scheme offers free lunches for children in primary, secondary classes in government, government aided, local body funded, selected NGOs which support government initiatives, NGO serving and training mentally and physically challenged children etc. According to estimates, around 1.2 crore children are served free lunch every day, making it a largest meals scheme in the world.
Despite being a largest meals scheme, the programme was originally started by British officials and was introduced in 1925 in Madras Corporation. Later, the French administration introduced in the Union Territory of Puducherry in the early 1930’s. The scheme was later re-introduced in primary schools in the 1962–63 throughout Tamilnadu by then Chief Minister K Kamaraj in order to attract more children to the school. Later, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M G Ramachandran upgraded the existing Mid-day meal scheme in the state to 'Nutritious food scheme' in order to eradicate malnutrition among 60 lakh children.
With the wide spread popularlity, Gujarat and Kerala decided to implement the scheme in 1985. But due to various reasons, the scheme was systematically abandoned in Gujarat. But Kerala expanded to more schools and other grades. In 1990-91, twelve states decided to implement their own scheme all students. The states include Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh. Karnataka, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal received foreign aid to help with implementation of the scheme.
According to the CAG report, in many cases, the quantity was less than the prescribed quantity. Of the total 2,012 samples of food grains collected, around 1,876 failed to meet nutritional standards. Making it around 80 percent of the foods are substandard. At least eight states and one Union Territory are verified offenders. These states are Assam, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Manipur, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir and Lakshadweep. Apart from this, between 2013 and 2015, there were 107 complaints about bad quality food - 18 in 2013, 41 in 2014 and 48 in 2015. But, action was taken against those responsible in only 32 cases. Kerala is the only state where not a single case relating to sub-standard food was reported for the past three years. Though Karnataka had reported several instances in 2013 and 2014, not a single case was reported in 2015.
Along with complaints of poor quality of food, there are many complaints regarding the prevalence caste system following during Midday meals scheme. According to a report presented by a dalit academic body, dalit students were offered lesser food compared to upper caste students. These incidences were found during the visits in the states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Around 30 per cent of Dalit children and parents said Dalit children were not allowed to serve food to upper caste children. Such caste based discrimination was the primary reason for the dropout of 20 per cent of the children attending school. Caste prejudice does not end here. Some dalit students were severely thrashed for touching plates used to serve midday meals to upper caste children. In many schools, Dalit children are asked to bring their own food plates from their home and many were served the lunch after upper caste children ate their meals. Besides, plates and utensils, many dalit children were not allowed to drink from the tap used by upper caste children. There have been incidences of upper caste teachers and cooks throwing food into the plates of Dalit children from a distance to avoid touching them. In some schools, midday meals were being served inside the temple premises where dalits are denied entry for several reasons.
Apart from the casteism and sub-standard food articles, the CAG report mentioned several abnormalities. One among the serious irregularities are that the percentage of actual children getting benefits from the scheme are lower than that furnished by the states to the Ministry of Human Resources in order to claiming the cost of food grains and cooking costs. The CAG audit has listed out institutional exaggeration of figures regarding meals offered to the students, irregular supply of food grains, inflated transportation costs etc. For example, from 14.69 crore in 2009-10, the number of children enrolled in schools covered by the MDM scheme has come down to 13.87 crore. In contrast, the enrolment of children in private schools witnessed a jump from 4.02 crore to 5.53 crore during the same period. These results point out a story that the consistent decline of the enrolment of children in schools providing mid-day meals. CAG in its recommended that the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry should get data submitted are examined through independent checks and a system of surprise checks should be introduced to check malpractices.
Despite the success of the program, child hunger continues to be a major problem in the country. . According to Global Hunger Index, India ranks 100th out of 119 countries on the global hunger index — behind North Korea, Bangladesh and Iraq. The country’s serious hunger level is driven by high child malnutrition and underlines need for stronger commitment to the social sector. This report effectively points out that more is needed to be done. As per the report, India ranks below many of its neighbouring countries such as China (29th rank), Nepal (72), Myanmar (77), Sri Lank (84) and Bangladesh (88). Though it is much ahead of Pakistan (106) and Afghanistan (107), so Indian policy maker shouldn’t find happy about it. Besides, the findings of the report underline the fact that the mid-day meal programme is yet to attain the final lap of goals. So more intensive methods must be employed along the curbing of the irregularities and casteism.