[Reader-list] Reg: Set - 1

Rakesh Iyer rakesh.rnbdj at gmail.com
Tue Jun 15 19:28:17 IST 2010

Hi all

I end today with this article, by Jean Dreze. He is a common feature of all
the three articles, and is one of the leading development economists in
India. He is a visiting professor of the Delhi School of Economics, and
currently I think he is in Jharkhand for the MNREGA social audits, the same
work for which I had applied for internship and got in Bihar (not under him

Hope you all would appreciate this initiative and get to read things over a
period of time different from the usual Kashmir-Muslim-defence-Modi debates.
I think there are other issues to ponder over too (as I have said
repeatedly) and hope people can get information on these areas as well, as I
feel they have been neglected for way too long.


RakeshArticle No: 3

Theme: Mid-day Meal Scheme

Source: The Hindu

Date: Tuesday, May 21, 2002



*School-meal politics *

By Jean Dreze

 In an enlightening note of dissent on education policy written in 1955,
B.V. Krishnamurthi, a distinguished economist, castigated the Government for
applying "the calculus of the private grocery merchant to a matter like
education". This mindset is alive and well, judging from the reluctance of
many State Governments to implement the recent Supreme Court order directing
them to introduce cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools.

It is hard to think of a better use of public funds at this time than the
provision of mid-day meals in primary schools. At least four arguments can
be invoked in favour of school meals. First, school meals boost school
participation. This argument alone would probably justify the cost of a
national mid-day meal programme, considering the crucial importance of
elementary education for economic development, social equity and
participatory democracy.

Second, school meals could help reduce child undernutrition, especially in
the form of micro-nutrient deficiencies. Even where school meals have
limited nutritional value, they would at least ensure that children are not
compelled to study on an empty stomach.

The third argument relates to social equity: given that the children who
attend Government schools come mainly from poor families, school meals can
be seen as a form of economic support for disadvantaged sections of the
population. In this respect, school meals are more effective than many other
programmes of targeted income support.

Fourth, there is a strong argument for school meals from the point of view
of child socialisation. Specifically, school meals help break caste barriers
as children from different castes learn to eat together. This feature has
not escaped the attention of the higher castes, judging from recent stories
of high-caste resistance to the introduction of mid-day meals in the local

The case for school meals is particularly strong today, when 60 million
tonnes of grain are lying idle in public warehouses. These food mountains
have become a resilient national embarrassment. Grain withdrawn from these
warehouses is effectively costless, since the procurement expenses have
already been borne. In fact, using idle food stocks for school meals would
save money, by reducing storage costs.

Of course, additional resources are required for transport and cooking
arrangements. In recent Supreme Court hearings, State Governments have
argued that they "cannot afford" these overhead costs. Yet, the same
Governments often borrow thousands of crores of rupees at short notice to
grant pay hikes to their employees, or to procure more and more grain from
vocal farmers. The future of Indian children cannot be kept hostage to these
lopsided priorities.

The Rajasthan Government deserves credit for initiating a school-meal
programme within the Supreme Court deadline. Public pressure, notably from
the People's Union for Civil Liberties, has played a role in this
initiative, and there is an important lesson here for popular organisations
elsewhere. This early experience also shows that the success of a
school-meal programme depends crucially on adequate planning, infrastructure
and supervision. A helper is needed to cook the food, since teachers (or
pupils for that matter) cannot and should not be expected to do it.
Safeguards are needed to ensure the quality of the food and its hygienic
preparation. Adequate provisions are also required for utensils, fuel,
transport, and so on.

A token school-meal programme, where poor-quality grain is handed over to
the teachers to cook with improvised facilities during school hours, could
do more harm than good.

In other States, the Governments are embracing the Supreme Court order with
varying convictions. Some have introduced school meals, or are planning to
do so when schools reopen in July. Others have submitted petitions asking
for extra time, financial assistance, or other concessions. A few
recalcitrant States have remained silent or even stated that they would
challenge the order.

The lagging States received an unexpected wake-up call on April 9, when
collective demands for mid-day meals were voiced in more than a hundred
districts through public hearings, dharnas, rallies, and other events.
Several States, however, are yet to fall in line. In Bihar, demonstrations
took place in every district, and also in Patna where thousands of children
clamoured for mid-day meals with empty plates. Yet the Education Minister
told a delegation of concerned citizens that he could "not promise anything"
as far as school meals were concerned.

One might have expected State Governments to welcome the school-meal
programme as an opportunity to win votes at relatively low cost. Indeed, the
scheme is likely to be quite popular, and it is not very expensive for the
State Governments, given that the Central Government is supplying the grain
for free. In most States, however, there is no sign of such enthusiasm.
There is something deeply defective about a democracy where people's basic
needs count for so little in electoral politics. The syndrome was painfully
evident in the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh: development issues were
virtually invisible from electoral debates.

This feature of Indian democracy was aptly summed up by Laloo Prasad Yadav
in a recent interview. In response to a pointed question about Bihar's
development record, Mr. Yadav shot back: "What has *vikas* (development) to
do with *raj satta *(political power)? There is no link between the two.
Only intellectuals think otherwise." Hopefully, the citizens will prove him
wrong in due course.

(The writer is Visiting Professor at the Delhi School of Economics)

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