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India: Midday Meal Scheme Must Continue Despite Bihar

India: The Midday Meal Scheme Must Continue Despite the Bihar Disaster

Simon Ladegaard Jakobsen

Despite claiming to be a champion of the poor, the Government of India has in recent years expressed an increased interest in introducing cash transfers instead of subsidized food. In this context, the midday meal disaster in Bihar the 16th of July, where 23 children died from eating their school meal, plays nicely into the hands of those arguing in favour of cash transfers. Proponents of cash transfers will be eager to forget the responsibility of the Bihar state government, and argue that the incident shows that the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) has failed. The real problem is the disastrous implementation of the scheme by an indifferent government. When the scheme is implemented properly, the MDMS delivers safe cheap meals that improve attendance and class room teaching, and provide a safety net for children who would otherwise starve. The Supreme Court has ordered the states to implement the scheme properly, as the MDMS is a crucial part of the implementation of the right to food. The failure of the Bihar state government to implement the MDMS should not be used as an argument against the scheme itself.

Proponents of cash transfers make three main arguments against the MDMS. First, they argue that the MDMS will not deliver improvements in nutrition and educational attainment because the MDMS fails to target the children and interferes with teaching. Second, they argue that the midday meals are a health hazard. Third, it is argued that the Public Distribution System (PDS), which make the distribution of food to school possible, is fundamentally flawed and corrupt. What the supporters of these arguments fail to appreciate is that the problems are not inherent to the MDMS. Ineffectiveness, health hazards, and corruption are a result of poor implementation. The lack of political will is the root cause.

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In recent years, several studies have been conducted to investigate the impact of the MDMS in India. In one of the first surveys on the midday meal, Drèze & Goyal (2003) found that the scheme has several good consequences such as improved attendance rate, child nutrition, and social equality. Interviews revealed that the introduction of the MDMS improved not only attendance of children, but also made them more likely to stay after the lunch break. Before the introduction of the midday meal many children would go home for lunch and not return. Now the children stay within the school premises, allowing the classes to resume smoothly. The study also suggests that the program has proved to be very effective in eradicating hunger. The midday meal helps the children maintain energy levels throughout the day, ensuring better concentration in the process. More importantly, midday meals act as a security net, not only for the children coming from poor families, but also for those affected by natural calamities like drought. In areas where hunger is endemic, the midday meal might be the only thing saving the children from chronic malnutrition. The study also points out some problems and the causes of these.  A recurrent problem with the programme is that it interferes with the class room teaching in some schools. This happens because of bad infrastructure such as inadequate utensils, lack of cooking shed, and poor water supply. It can also happen due to the lack of cooks and helpers, which can put extra workload on the teachers. The authors conclude that the functioning of the programs is determined by political will to a large extend. In the states where the midday meal has been implemented properly with political backing and sufficient funding the programme tends to function much better. Subsequent studies have since supported these views.

Afridi (2010) has studied the short run nutritional impact of the midday meal. The data shows that the scheme reduced the daily protein deficiency by 100\%, the daily calorie deficiency by almost 30\%, and the daily iron deficiency by 10\%. Singh et al. (2012) tested the long term impact of the programme using longitudinal data from Andhra Pradesh. They conclude that the midday meal act effectively as a security net for children affected by drought. The children affected by drought initially had a much lower height-for-age (called stunted growth) than the average child. The children who received midday meals were able to reverse this stunted growth and catch up with the children that were not affected by drought, while the children who did not receive midday meals remained stunted. This reversal is possible because long term malnutrition in childhood also delays skeletal growth, making it possible to reach one's growth potential if adequate nutrition is provided. Normally the reversal does not occur because the stunted child will often face the same socioeconomic constraints that made it stunted in the first place. This does not mean that the negative consequences of years of malnutrition in childhood can suddenly be turned around, but it does show the high impact midday meals have on long term nutritional status. It is well established that stunted growth impairs cognitive development and reduces learning ability of children.

Afridi (2007) concluded, after analyzing data from 41 villages in Madhya Pradesh, that the average monthly attendance rate for girls increased by more than 10 percentage points as a result of the MDMS, and thereby increased overall attendance rate and reduced gender inequality. Bonds (2012) analysed India's 2004 Socio-Economic Survey dataset, and found that attendance rates are 29.5\% higher among children in public schools who receive the midday meal compared to those who do not, after controlling for sex, age, rural/urban, family size, household income, and religion. The study also concludes that the rise in attendance is significantly higher among children from poor families. Singh (2008) found that the midday meal improves the children's learning. The midday meal scheme in Andhra Pradesh improved the pupils Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test scores by more than 0.6 standard divisions. Whether the increased educational attainment is due to increased attendance rate or increased learning ability through improved nutritional status, long or short term, has not been thoroughly examined.

These studies show that the MDMS does succeed in targeting the children. The MDMS has proved an essential part of the implementation of the right to food, and aids India's development goals by improving attendance rates, learning, and health.

What about the PDS then? If the distribution system is inherently ineffective, then the policy of transfer in kind will be ineffective as well. This, however, is not the case. AsKhera (2011) points out in her analysis of leakage in the PDS, the states that make the PDS a priority are also the ones having low leakage in the system. Chhattisgarh is a good example of this. The diversion of grain in Chhattisgarh was very high before the government suddenly decided to stop corruption and make the system work. Reforms of the PDS began in 2004, and now the diversion of grain is close to nothing.

On the supply side, the Chhattisgarh government decided in 2004 to de-privatize the ration shops. Community institutions, such as Gram Panchayats, have been put in charge instead. Another reform was to deliver the grain to the shops instead of having the shop owners pick it up from the godowns. This way the shop owners cannot falsely tell their costumers that there was a shortfall at the godowns, in order to sell the grain on the black market. Another important step was to improve grievance redressal, like for example active help lines, where complaints from the users can be lodged, and action will be taken. Chhattisgarh has also experimented with SMS alerts to inform citizens, and writing the entitlements of the households on their houses. All these inexpensive measures have the purpose of creating a transparent and responsive system led by the community, and ensure that corrupt shop owners and truck drivers will be punished if they try to cheat. On the demand side, the government increased the amount of beneficiaries to almost 80\% of all rural households in 2008. In 2012 this was increased to 90\% of all households. When almost everybody, including the better educated (although the socioeconomic backgrounds of the additional beneficiaries are actually not different from the existing (Puri 2012), pointing to the inherent problem of targeting - exclusion error), have a stake in the PDS, the pressure on the system to deliver is greater. States such as Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, and Orissa have improved their PDS using similar methods. Ration shops in Bihar, on the other hand, are almost exclusively owned by private dealers, and the government does not deliver the grain directly to the shops. It is thus not surprising that Bihar by far has the most corrupt system with the highest amount of diversion. Only 45\% of the grain reaches its intended beneficiaries, and 70\% of respondents report that they have to skip meals because of lack of food (Khera 2011b). Political will for reforms yet again seem like the deciding factor.

The alternative to the PDS, cash transfers, remains very unpopular with the poor. In a survey in 9 states by Khera (2011b), only 19.5\% expressed preference for cash transfers while 72.8\% preferred food. The reasons for this are many. First, people have bad experiences with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) wage payments. Since 2008 NREGA wages have been paid through bank or post offices. Many workers have experienced delays in payment (sometimes up to a year), and rampant corruption in the payment of the wages. The banks are often overcrowded, and many workers have to make repeated trips to the bank before collecting their wages. Second, many worry about access to markets to buy food, as well as to banks/post offices to receive money. The study found that the average household has to go a further 3.8 km to reach banks/post offices, compared to the distance they have to the fair price shops. Markets can also be far away, and at some places, for example in parts of Orissa and Chhattisgarh, rice is not available throughout the year. Third, many people would be dependent on local traders to deliver food for affordable prices. There is, however, no guarantee that traders will not take advantage of the lack of fallback option, by raising prices. Related to this is the biggest worry of them all; that increased market prices will decrease food security as inflation correction of the cash transfer will happen with a time lag. In a starving country like India, this will often mean the difference between life and dead.

Cash transfers might be a viable option when the infrastructure and technology allows for frictionless implementation, but the disastrous results of the government cash transfer pilots prove that this is still a distant future. For example, an attempt to introduce cash transfers instead of subsidized kerosene in a district in Rajasthan resulted in a 79\% decrease in sales because a lot of people did not receive their cash transfers consistently. Would it then really be reasonable to expect that the children will receive adequate food and attend school if their parents receive small and unreliable cash transfers? Giving meals directly to the children ensures that the money spent by the government has the intended impact.

Replacing a programme like MDMS with cash transfers would be to disregard available evidence. Studies show that, with proper implementation, midday meals are safe and effective, and should be seen as both an essential part of the implementation of the right to food, as well as a high yield investment in human capital. This should be kept in mind when observing how some governments fail to implement the scheme, since this show their contempt for the fundamental rights of the people, as well as the economic development of society. Good implementation is a matter of creating transparency and accountability, and the achievement of this is a matter of political will. There are plenty of good examples of successful reforms, and the Government of India and the Bihar state government should learn from these. Corruption and neglect can never be an excuse to deny the people their basic rights.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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