( October 16, 2018 )
By Santanu Mishra
Health and education are two aspects that the country has been working on consistently, through private efforts as well as public-private partnerships. The government's Mid-Day Meal Scheme is a key aspect of these efforts, moving forward through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. These programmes have consistently improved the position of children in terms of health, education and nutrition. Almost half of India's children are undernourished, irrespective of whether the criteria are weight for age or height for age.
Although the Mid-Day Meal Scheme was launched in 1995 with the aim of universalising "primary education by increasing enrolment, retention and attendance and simultaneously impacting on nutrition of students in primary classes", it gained traction only after the Supreme Court's right-to-food ruling in November 2001, which mandated that all government and government-assisted primary schools had to provide cooked midday meals.
The scheme has played a critical role in facilitating the universalisation of elementary education, reflected in the increase in enrolment, attendance and retention. Although there haven't been any large-scale studies on this aspect, micro level studies have pointed to a steady improvement in these areas. For instance, following the introduction of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in Rajasthan in July 2002, a small study was conducted in about 63 schools in the remote district of Barmer. The study pointed to a 23% increase in the enrolment of children. What is even more interesting is the effect it has had in the rate of enrolment of girls in schools. Thanks to the introduction of the scheme, the rate of girls excluded from schooling has halved; in Barmer, there has been a 36% jump in the enrolment rates of girls. The studies that have been conducted also point to a higher attendance and retention rate, but since these aspects are difficult to measure, we cannot draw conclusive results from the data provided. Interestingly, schools are becoming more creative in the way they navigate the health and education aspects using the scheme.
Another big achievement of the scheme has been effectively eliminating "classroom hunger" in most instances. Various nutritional deficiencies found in children are also tackled through the scheme. Various micro-nutrient deficiencies (iron, iodine and Vitamin A) are also effectively tackled through the scheme. Many schools have also undertaken mass deworming strategies while implementing the program.
Sharing meals with kids from various socio-economic segments has also meant children are being taught to do away with social prejudices. Additionally, the scheme has also enabled teachers to impart knowledge and education on nutrition and personal hygiene to children, for instance teaching them to wash their hands before eating.