As the clock chimes 11 am, Neetu Yadav, 10, and her classmates’ eyes turn expectantly from the blackboard to the school gates. As the roar of the autorickshaw carrying their Mid Day Meal grows louder, the 35 students at the government-run Rajkya Prathmik Vidyalaya, Ghanchiyon ki Gufa, Saraswati Nagar, erupt into a loud cheer.
Jodhpur, located in the vast Thar Desert of western Rajasthan, is the state’s second largest city, with a population of around 3.68 million (2011 Census). The city prides itself on its educational institutions and the average literacy here is 81.56 per cent – with female literacy registering 73.93 per cent. Impressive figures, given that average literacy rate in the state is 67 per cent.
That’s the reason an initiative like the Mid Day Meal Scheme assumes so much importance here. No one can put it better than little Neetu. “The meal is certainly an incentive for me to come to school,” she says with a beaming smile. A Class V student, she particularly loves the ‘khichadi’ (dal and rice cooked together with spices) on today’s menu. Her parents, who were once farmers in Bihar, migrated to the city in search of work. Her father is employed in a steel factory and her mother does odd stitching jobs to supplement the meagre family income.
So what do children like Neetu eat before coming to school? Does India really need the Mid Day Meal Scheme? Neetu can only have tea and a couple of glucose biscuits before setting out for school. For her, and for innumerable others like her, the Mid Day Meal is the only wholesome meal they get on any given day.
At Rajkya Prathmik Vidyalaya, Saraswati Nagar, 54 students are enrolled, but an average of 35 students attends each day. Principal Beena Tiwari determines the amount of food required for the Mid Day Meal on the basis of the previous day’s attendance and she tastes the meal before serving it to the children.
In the adjoining Rajkya Prathmik Vidyalaya, Madhuban Housing Board, children sit in rows on the cemented platform at the school’s entrance, as teacher, Mooli Tolani, is helped by some older students in carrying the food containers and serving the meal to the 84 students present today. In fact, at 11 am, this is a sight replicated across the 467 schools in Jodhpur located within a 26-kilometre radius, which are provided food directly from a centralised kitchen. Other schools have their own kitchen, utensils and cook, depending on the number of enrolments. According to official records, a total of 353,661 students in the 4,052 government schools in Jodhpur district have benefited from the Mid Day Meal Scheme in December 2011.
Talking to other children, most of who live in small rented rooms in the city’s narrow bylanes, a similar story unfolds. If it weren’t for the Mid Day Meal, Class V student at the Rajkya Prathmik Vidyalaya, Madhuban Housing Board, Kanchan Yadav, 12, who has five siblings, would go hungry most times. But Kanchan, and her friend, Pushpa Kumari, 11, would like milk to be included in some form in their Mid Day Meal, either as ‘kheer’ (rice pudding) or as a wheat and milk porridge or as ‘chhach’ (a yogurt drink with salt and jeera).
Milk, fruits and ‘dal’ (lentil) are markedly absent in the normal diet of these children. Under the Mid Day Meal Scheme, there is provision for only one fruit per child per week. With ‘dal’ presently costing Rs 80 (US$1=Rs 49.6) a kilo and milk anywhere between Rs 20 and Rs 25 a litre, most families can afford to cook one seasonal vegetable and buy milk sufficient only for tea.
Some children are a little fortunate. “We have milk with a spoonful of ghee and bread for breakfast. My father pays a monthly sum to the ‘kirana’ (grocery) store so we can pick up a packet of Maggi noodles on the way home from school to have with afternoon tea,” says Panchu Singh Rawat, 14. He is the eldest of four children, all studying at Rajkya Prathmik Vidyalaya, Madhuban Housing Board.
The food provided under the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education – commonly known as the Mid Day Meal Scheme – is customised to local taste. When the scheme was launched on August 15, 1995, students were given ‘ghughari’ (boiled wheat porridge with jaggery). Since 2002, cooked meals are being provided comprising a set menu of local favourities – ‘dal-bati’, ‘dal-roti’, ‘roti-sabzi’, sweet or savoury rice and ‘khichadi’, on a weekly rotational basis.
Approximately Rs 6 (US$1=Rs 49.6) per child per day is spent by the government on each meal, with the central government contributing 75 per cent, and the state picking up the rest of the tab. Costs are kept down by using subsidised foodgrains from the Public Distribution System (PDS). Under the PDS, wheat that is sold at Rs 21 per kilo in the open market is priced at Rs 4.15 and rice otherwise sold at Rs 25 is subsidised to Rs 5.65 per kilo. The cooking conversion cost, which includes fuel, oil and spices, of 100grams of wheat/rice given to every Class 1 to 5 student per meal is Rs 2.89, while the cooking conversion cost of 150grams of wheat/rice given to each Class 6 to 8 student per meal is Rs 4.33.
The Mid Day Meal Scheme has brought several benefits in its wake. Anita Rohatgi, Principal, Rajkya Prathmik Vidyalaya, Madhuban Housing Board, makes an interesting observation, “Our students have learnt to eat with a spoon and respect food.” Watching the children carefully wash their hands and steel plates using mugs from water stored in buckets – in the absence of tap water in the school – qualifies her statement.
She recalls a time, before this scheme was introduced, when children were less active and often fell ill. “The scheme is helping to supplement nutrients in the daily diet of our children. One balanced meal every day has reduced deficiencies of vital nutrients like vitamins and calcium, making them less susceptible to diseases,” says Rohatgi. The state Medical and Health Department conducts a regular medical check-up of students, and those with deficiencies are given medical assistance as well as micro-nutrients like Vitamin A, iron, folic acid, and multi-vitamins.
There is room for improvement, though. The machine made ‘rotis’ from the centralised kitchen are rather stiff and the children have to eat it as biscuit or break it into pieces and soak it in ‘dal’ or vegetable curry (“roti chur ke”). Rohatgi suggests that rather than using machines, if women are employed to make the ‘rotis’, it would not only improve the texture of the ‘rotis’, but also become a source of income for the women.
Despite the occasional complaint, the efficacy of the Mid Day Meal Scheme, as a source of supplementary nutrition and a stimulus to school education, cannot be denied. According to Jodhpur District Collector Siddharth Mahajan, “This has been one of the better schemes for its usefulness and effective implementation. It has also helped break caste barriers since all the children sit and eat together.”
But his clinching argument is that the Mid Day Meal has emerged as a major source of nutrition for many who were getting very little to eat. Mahajan says, “If there was no Mid Day Meal, children in Classes 1 to 5 would not be getting 12 grams of protein and 450 calories and those in Classes 6 to 8 would have been deprived of 20 grams of protein and 700 calories. That’s the reason we have been running the Mid Day Meal Scheme here, even during the summer holidays and in times of drought.”