Has MDMS realised its full potential?

The recently released ‘State of School Feeding Worldwide 2013’ by World Food Programme has many salient features. Of the 368 million children (pre-primary, primary and secondary) fed daily across the world, the coverage in India has the biggest share – a 114 million or 79 per cent. Just in the year 2010-11, the services in India expanded by an overall commendable 10 per cent.

One of the country’s flagship programmes, the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) was adopted by many states in 2001 under the Supreme Court’s landmark direction, mandating the provision of cooked mid-day meals in order to boost children’s nutritional status and promote education. The political will demonstrated by every government regardless of party lines, and the dedicated budget of Rs 43,144 crore for the MDM scheme in the last five years alone, stands as a testimony to the country’s commitment to combat hunger and foster education. With access to 79 per cent of the country hungry children every single day, the MDM has immense opportunity to actually put these children on the path to better health and education outcomes.  Has it done that?  Let’s examine some facts. 

Monitoring needed

As per the NFHS III survey carried out in 2005-06, data shows that 69.5 per cent children are anemic, 48 per cent underweight, 38 per cent stunted and 19 per cent wasted. The MDMS decided to fight this by providing iron, folic acid (IFA) once a week and detect and treat children as a part of its ‘School Health Programme’ (SHP). However, in 2012-13 only 36 per cent children underwent health check-ups, 22 per cent received IFA and 19 per cent were distributed deworming medicine. And during the first two quarters of 2012-13, in the states/union territories of Assam, Haryana, Kerala, Manipur, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, no child was reported under the SHP (Overview of MDMS, 2013), indicating that the SHP needs intensive monitoring and implementation. 

Achieving a healthy populace is eminently possible if along with health, access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities are provided. With just these two in the framework, India can avoid 13 per cent diarrheal child deaths it faced in 2010 (Committing to Child Survival 2012, UNICEF). Simple and inexpensive interventions such as washing hands, particularly after contact with excreta, have proven to effectively reduce diarrhea by over 40 per cent and respiratory infections by over 30 per cent. However, despite all efforts undertaken, close to 50 per cent of girls toilets still remain un-useable and 17 per cent of the schools lack drinking water facilities (ASER 2012). There is indeed a lot that needs to be still done.

Poor sanitation and a contaminated environment coupled with lack of regularised micronutrient intake, health check-ups and treatments will deprive children of a healthy growth; this despite been given a nutritious meal every day. India will continue to rank 2nd in terms of malnourished children (World Bank) who will have decreased attention and low educational achievements; thus eventually impacting the country’s overall economic growth. Malnourished children may earn 20 per cent less than the normal and if the issue remains unaddressed, it may cost India a whopping $46 billion by 2030 (Save the Children 2013).

Unless WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is addressed with immediacy and efficacy, the MDMS’stated objectives and efforts of addressing malnutrition and increasing school enrolment and attendance thereby promoting education will remain a little wanting. A well-established initiative, the MDMS can make its impact even stronger by acting on these missing linkages. With the passing of the Companies Bill 2012 wherein it is compulsory for corporates to adopt corporate social responsibility (CSR) and spend at least 2 per cent of the average net profits in a bid to eradicate poverty, it would be a sensible and strategic move to encourage these companies to holistically adopt, sensitise and improve the country’s government schools.

As a first step, it would be a good idea to revise the MDMS’ stated objectives and adopt an all-encompassing approach that includes proven measures to tackle the issues of water, sanitation and hygiene. This way the MDMS programme will be beneficial to the overall development of the child and in turn the country’s future. 

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