mid day meal

On a biting cold  day in January this year, the city of Prayagraj witnessed a day long demonstration by a group of cooks employed by the government’s Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) for school children. They were demanding their pay, withheld for over eight months at the peak of the Covid pandemic, by the Uttar Pradesh regime without giving any reasons.

“In fact we were sitting outside in the rain, and no officer came to ask us why were there. What else could we have done when our pay had been withheld for 8 months?” said Neelam Nishad, one of the cooks employed in a government school of Sadiapur in Prayagraj District.

According to her MDMS cooks had been expecting that they would get paid before the Diwali festival in November last year. But the Block level nodal officer said the grants had not come so they were unable to do anything about it. Delayed payments are a regular feature in the MDM Scheme according to her.

Neelam has been working since the last 2 years and as one of the 3.95 lakh MDM cooks in the state, she has been active in the struggle for unionizing the cooks, most of whom are women, in the district. She is now the President of the Prayagraj District MDM Workers’ Union, but laments that the women mostly say “kuchch nahin se kuchch bhala” (something is better than nothing)

This was all the more true during the peak pandemic period because at least there was some guaranteed income, where many of the men were sitting idle at home. But the 2022-23 Budget has belied their expectation of getting a raise. Their honorarium remains the same though cost of essentials are skyrocketing.

The MDM Scheme-background

The Mid Day Meal Scheme is a central government scheme under the HRD Ministry, which had been started initially in 1995 to provide nutrition to growing children, to encourage enrolment in schools as well as decrease the dropout rate, especially of poor children and girls. The scheme was created under the Ministry of Women and Child.

Only dry rations were being given in most of the states till 2001, except in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Orissa, Kerala and some parts of Madhya Pradesh, where hot cooked meals were being served. Allocation for the scheme was provided for in the 2004 budget and its implementation began in 2005. It is the largest scheme of its kind, providing one nutritious meal for children of school going age in government schools or government aided schools and madrasas. 60% of the cost of running the scheme comes from the Central government while 40% comes from the State government. There are monitoring committees at all levels right from the centre up to the village level to see that the scheme is implemented properly. Yet the scheme is ridden with too many problems.

“When we have been ourselves suffering, what can we do for the children? It is this that corrupts many. We have been demanding the status of government employees since long, because we can be thrown out without any valid reason anytime” Neelam  told Covid Response Watch.

According to her they wanted increase in pay to 10,000 per month and salary for 12 months as well as payment within the first week of every month.

“Till now our honorarium was Rs.1000 and only since last year we got a paltry increase of Rs.500. So effectively we get only Rs.50 per day. That also is given for 10 months and is often delayed. Can we manage with Rs. 1500 per month? This is just a token amount, like a bakshish (tip), not even equal to the minimum wage.”

The MDMS cooks complain that they are never given a bonus during major festivals like Holi and Diwali. Last year they could not even celebrate Diwali because payments were pending. Moreover, in some areas of Allahabad, for example, in Jhunsi, many quarantine centres had been set up for Covid positive people and the MDMS cooks had to prepare and deliver food to them. They should have been given extra remuneration for that, but since schools were closed, no money was given.

Neelam says people working for MNREGA get Rs.202 per day. “We spend 7-8 hours not only cooking, but even dusting the benches and windows, sweeping the classrooms and verandahs, doing small errands for the teachers and cleaning the vessels before we leave. There have been cases in the state where cooks have had to clean the washrooms. My sister cooks for a family of 4 and gets a salary of Rs.6000 plus festival bonus”.

“The government doesn’t even heed the order of the High Court” she says.

Violation of HC Orders

In 2019 the Allahabad High Court had ordered that the MDMS cooks should be given 12 months’ salary, but the government still pays only 10 months’ honorarium. Besides this, in the case of cook Chandrawati vs the State of UP and 6 Others, the Bench of Justice Pankaj Bhatia had said on 15 December 2020 that “making someone work for this kind of pay amounts to ‘begaar and forced labour’ under Article 23 of the Indian Constitution.”

The honorable High Court had also directed the State Government and all the District Magistrates to pay honorarium to MDMS cooks according to the Minimum Wages Act and the discrepancy in wage from 2005 to 2020 be paid as arrears within 4 months. But so far nothing has been done by the government. The latest budget has also not raised their honorarium.

COVID Response Watch LogoManju Devi who works as a cook in Bara block 7 kilometers from Shivrajpur in Prayagraj is a widow who has been working in a government school since 13 years, says it is impossible to make two ends meet. According to the MDM guidelines, women from disadvantaged groups are to be given priority in appointments. But Manju has a ‘hand-to-mouth’ existence.

She laments, “my eldest child is a son who is now in class twelve and another daughter in class 8. The youngest is 7 years old and studies in the school where I work. I will need money for their education. I leave the house at 8 a.m. and come back home by 4 pm. Then I do all the housework. It is very cold when we set out, but we are not even entitled to a uniform (saree) or shawl and sweater in the winters. After the schools reopened, we were asked to get vaccinated and attend to work. Even during the 3rd wave of Covid, while children don’t come to school, teachers are present so we have to be on duty till they leave. We have also to inform parents now that food grains are being distributed, so they must go and collect it.”

During the time of the pandemic, (2020-21), the scheme was inoperative in Uttar Pradesh. Only in May 2021 a decision was taken to provide food for the children. But implementation began only in September 2021. Only rice and wheat was being distributed, but no lentils. Money for milk and fruits goes directly to the bank accounts of the parents. But many families complained that they did not get the food grains or cash and even those who got said the supply was irregular. Many families sold the food grains to buy other essentials.

Usha Singh who is a teacher in a government school in Mau says, “During the pandemic, when children need it most, cooked mid-day meals are not sent for the children. This may be because most of the cooks are illiterate and know nothing about health and hygiene. They are also not trained by any government agency as to what they have to do during Covid times, for example, how to wash the vegetables, vessels and keep the kitchen clean. Then regular testing would become important for cooks having symptoms. Otherwise the infection could spread very fast in the villages. But cash and dry food grains should have been sent from the very first day of closure.”

Violation of guidelines and leakage

The Government has set guidelines for the MDM scheme. A proper clean and separate portion of the school has to be allocated for cooking. The area is not supposed to be open. Proper utensils have to be used and gas cylinders have to be kept in a safe place away from the reach of children.

But in UP, infrastructure is poor. In fact UP has been the worst performer. 200 days a year hot cooked food is to be served and all provisions used are supposed to have the agmark, indicating they conform to a set of standards approved by the Directorate of Marketing and Inspection set up by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. Children in classes I to V are to get 450 calories and those from classes VI to VIII 700 calories. The primary level kids are to be given 100gms of wheat/rice, 12 gms protein, 5 gms oil, and 50 gms vegetables daily, besides 200 gms milk and one fruit once a week. The older children are to get 150 gms wheat/rice, 20 gms protein, 75 gms vegetables, 7.5gm oil besides 250 gms milk and one fruit once a week. Even this is less than needed for a balanced diet.

Dr. Kamal Usri, an activist who has been actively organising the MDMS cooks says “earlier the provisions and cash for purchase of kitchen utensils and devices used to be disbursed by the gram Pradhan through the Principal of the concerned school. There was a lot of corruption and often children did not get milk or fruits. Children of all ages were given less food than stipulated. The daal was often very dilute and vegetables were given in less quantity than prescribed. But now it is the teachers who manage everything, so there is a slight improvement since they have to eat the same food. Yet leakage cannot be prevented since the ones who monitor are themselves corrupt.”

A shikshamitra from Bhadoi, who did not wish to be named, said “some senior teachers in my school had ghee and pickles ordered, but that is shared only among teachers. This is not a good practice. Teachers should eat with the children whatever they eat.”

A balanced diet, according to a child specialist, should have per meal 120 gm cereals (4-6yrs), 180 gm cereals (7-9 yrs) and 240-300 gms (10-12 yrs), 50gms, 75 gms and 100gms of green leafy/green vegetables, 7 gms,7 gms and 10 gms of sugar,8gms,10gms and 10 gms of fat,  500 gms milk/milk products, 100 gms of fruits per day. The Mid Day Meal Scheme should follow this, considering the fact that it is the only proper meal that a child gets in a day.

How to prevent corruption?

A positive experiment was conducted in Nagaland where the Nagaland Communitisation of Public Institution and Services Act 2002 is in force. Communitisation was started to check the quality of education and prevent leakage in MDM as well as maintain its quality. VECs (Village Education Committees) were formed with members from among the parents of children as well as NGOs, workers and teachers. 94% of villagers surveyed said that teaching and nutrition was up to the mark. Money was given to the VECs to manage the schools. They also had the right to withhold salaries of teachers if they did not work. Provisions were purchased by the VECs and the quality and quantity of food considerably improved. This experiment needs to be universalized.

Scheme expanded but funds reduced

According to the Education Minister, the MDM Scheme has been expanded to include children from pre-primary schools called Balvatikas, which were under the ICDS. This will be in operation from 2021-22 to 2025-2026 (PM Poshan Scheme)

In the last year’s budget, Rs.10233.75 crore was spent on mid-day meal scheme for 2021–22 (Revised Estimate). The Budget for 2022–23 has also earmarked a similar amount of Rs.10233.75 crore in the Budget Estimate. This means there is no increase. Then under the PM-Poshan umbrella scheme, for 2022–23, the total allocation for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme and ICDS (Anganwadi) Scheme and the Scheme for Adolescent Girls is Rs. 20263.07 crore only.

But in the 2020–21 Budget, the allocation for Mid-Day Meal Scheme was Rs.10233.75 crore (RE) under the Ministry of Education and the allocation for Anganwadi/ICDS Scheme under the Ministry for Women and Child Development was Rs.20938.31 crore. But, strangely enough, under the umbrella scheme the total had come down to Rs. 20263.07 crore, which is less than that for !CDS alone.

How is Ms.Nirmala Sitharaman going to explain this more than Rs.10,000 crore shortfall, especially for a year when schools are reopening? This remains a mystery in this budget. Not only that, even as far back as in the 2015–16 Union Budget, the total allocation for Mid-Day Meal and ICDS programmes was Rs.24577.98 crore. Now, six fiscal years later, the Finance Minister allocates Rs.20263.07 crore only, a reduction of Rs.4314.91 crore or 17.56%. Correspondingly, the States’ share will also come down.

Is the merger of Mid-Day Meal Scheme and ICDS Scheme under the umbrella scheme PM-Poshan a ruse for truncated versions of the schemes?

Even if we take the Mid-Day Meal Scheme alone, the allocation in 2022–23 Budget was the same as in 2021–22 Budget at Rs. 10233.75 crore which is considerably less than the allocation of Rs. 12878.15 crore in the 2020–21 budget, a reduction of Rs.2644.40 crore in two years. Who is siphoning away the money meant for children?

It is no surprise that going by the Global Hunger Index for 2021, India has slipped from 94th position in 2020 to 101th position in 2021 and 1 in every 3 children (0-4 yrs) is underweight.  There has been a 91% rise in the number of SAM (severely acute malnourished children) between November 2020 and October 2021.And, 43% of all under-six (SAM) children are from UP. The CEO of CRY, Puja Marhawa has warned the Government that the pandemic has negatively impacted all social indicators, and if attention is not paid urgently, the country will never be able to make up this loss. Are the powers that be listening?

The state component will be respectively 5,974 crore, 6,277 crore, 6,383 crore, 6,492 crore and 6,604 crore in the corresponding years. Taking more than 5% inflation into consideration, the actuals will be very much less than stipulated.  Also, there is no proposed increase in the honorarium for the cooks, no additional nutrition like eggs, fortified biscuits, increase in the amount of fruits or milk.

Kumudini Pati is a researcher based in Prayagraj


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