Wednesday, Nov 13, 2002
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By Reetika Khera
SINCE THE beginning of this academic year, primary schools in Rajasthan have been serving mid-day meals in compliance with the Supreme Court's orders. Among States that did not already have a mid-day meal scheme, Rajasthan was the first to comply. However, the initial phase of this new programme led to distressing reports in local newspapers of children suffering from stomach aches, of teachers and pupils running around to fetch water or wood for the mid-day meal, and so on.
In the bargain, the possible benefits of the new experiment seem to have been ignored. To put these concerns in perspective, a survey of 63 primary schools covering 41 villages of Barmer district was undertaken in September 2002 by the Lok Adhikar Network, Barmer. Investigators visited seven Shiksha Karmi schools, 19 Rajiv Gandhi Pathshalas and 37 Government schools (primary or middle) in these villages. They were asked to visit schools in at least two villages of each gram panchayat, to ensure that the sample was not confined to the most accessible villages. In the 63 sample schools, average enrolment at the primary level rose from 79 children in September 2001 to 98 a year later an increase of 23 per cent. The sharp increase in the enrolment of girls (36 per cent in just one year) is particularly impressive and encouraging. This has resulted in a reduction in the gender bias as far as enrolment is concerned.
Mid-day meals are one of two possible reasons for the higher enrolment levels this year. The other is the "Shiksha Aapke Dwar" drive of the State Government, aimed at universal enrolment in the 6-14 age group. This programme requires teachers to identify out-of-school children aged between 6 and 14 years through village surveys and persuade them to join school. Since it is difficult to convince parents to send older children, especially girls, in some places teachers have enrolled younger children, aged four or five, to make up the deficit. The separate contributions of mid-day meals and enrolment drives to the recent increase in school participation are not easy to assess, and call for further investigation.
Informal discussions with teachers suggest that the daily attendance rates have also increased. This improvement is unlikely to be the result of enrolment drives, and was widely attributed to the mid-day meals.
In Rajasthan, the mid-day meal consists of "ghooghri", a mixture of gur (jaggery) and boiled wheat. At the beginning of the academic year, children and teachers often had to spend time cooking the ghooghri (as pointed out in various media reports). However, this problem was largely remedied after the August 15 meeting of gram sabhas. In September, all the sample schools had a cook. In selecting the cook, the State Government had issued guidelines whereby destitute women (especially widows) from the village were to be given priority. We found that, by and large, this had happened. More than a third of the women employed as cooks were widowed. Only in three schools did we find male cooks, and even they had been selected on grounds of destitution or physical disability.
This is not to say that the scheme is running smoothly in every respect. The investigators were asked to discuss the mid-day meal with the teachers, the children and the cooks. A frequently cited problem relates to the inadequacy and irregularity of funds and supplies. The cash allowance (Rs. 5 per kilogram of wheat) is quite meagre, and it is especially inadequate in schools with low enrolment (because of the "fixed costs" involved in providing mid-day meals). In the initial days of the scheme, this was one of the main reasons for not appointing a cook.
A dangerous consequence of inadequate funds is the use of sub-standard gur, often leading to stomach aches or upsets. Another frequent problem is that utensils have not been provided for cooking the meal. However, in most cases the community has found ways of solving this problem. In one case, the local MLA announced an award (out of his Local Area Development fund) for the panchayat where the best ghooghri was made, which generated considerable enthusiasm. In another case, the parents cooperated to provide utensils for the school. As far as digestibility is concerned, many cooks have started soaking the wheat before cooking it, resulting in fewer complaints of stomach aches.
Another problem in the provision of mid-day meals is that in some places supplies are irregular or inadequate. The supply of wheat for some schools is based on last year's enrolment, and since enrolment has risen quite dramatically, the amount of wheat provided is often inadequate. Besides delays in the supply of wheat, delays in payments are also causing irregularity in the preparation of the ghooghri. Some teachers are concerned that if the supplies are irregular the scheme may actually collapse. The last problem related to funds is that even though the mid-day meal allowances are meagre, there have been cases of embezzlement by the teachers or the cook. For instance, ghooghri is sometimes prepared on the basis of the number of children enrolled rather than the number of children present. The surplus ghooghri is kept for the teacher or cook to eat or take home. We also found cases where the teachers had not given the cook his or her due.
Caste-based discrimination was reported in two of the 63 schools that were visited. The absence of any evidence of caste-based discrimination in most schools is encouraging, and from this point of view mid-day meals have an important socialisation value. However, this finding has to be read in the light of the fact that many schools in the sample villages are effectively single-caste schools, due to the creation of "alternative" schools in isolated hamlets.
Also, some discrimination is likely to have occurred in the selection of cooks. Although there were Dalit cooks in the sample villages, their number might have been higher in the absence of caste discrimination. Indeed, there have been media reports of Dalit cooks being removed in response to local protests, generally from parents belonging to non-Dalit castes.
To conclude, the survey suggests that the new mid-day meal scheme in Rajasthan has been internalised quite quickly by all concerned children, teachers, parents and the administration. The fact that the issue has faded away from newspaper headlines is also indicative of this "normalisation" effect. The beneficial aspects, such as higher school attendance, seem to be emerging quite clearly. The appointment of cooks has ensured that the preparation of the mid-day meal does not interfere with classroom activity. The main task ahead is to remove caste discrimination in its working. Issues of timely delivery and remuneration also need to be addressed. Last but not least, the nutritive value of the meal needs to be sustained and improved.
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