Beyond the Big Promises, 'PM Poshan' Is Old School Meal on New Plate

Narendra Modi has taken a well-functioning but underfunded scheme and added his 'branding' to it. The least he could have done is allocated the kind of money the programme badly needs.

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On September 29, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the ‘National Scheme for PM Poshan’ in schools, details of which have been put out in a press release. While full scheme details are not yet available, this news has been covered widely across the print and electronic media. From the details of the scheme and financial outlays, it seems that this is just a repackaging of the school mid-day meal programme with a new name and some window dressing.

The Supreme Court in its ruling in the Right to Food case in 2001 directed that all children in government primary schools must be given a hot cooked meal on every school working day. While few states such as Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and others were already providing a cooked meal in schools, in other states dry rations were distributed once a month in schools under the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NSPE).

The scheme was revised by the Central government in 2004 to include cooking costs to cover for other ingredients and implementation of a cooked meal and in 2007, it was further extended to cover children in upper primary schools (classes 6-8). The National Food Security Act (NFSA) also includes the provision of mid-day meals to children in class 1-8 in government schools as one of the entitlements under the Act. Schedule II of the Act gives the details of the minimum calories and proteins that the meal should have and rules that have been framed under this Act give further details of implementation.

The mid-day meal scheme, as it is popularly known, has by far been one of the best implemented welfare schemes of the government and is also well-received by communities. There is a lot of research and evidence, both in India as well as globally, that show that school meals contribute to child development in a number of ways. While provision of cooked meal in school increases enrolment as well as attendance of children, it contributes to addressing the issue of classroom hunger, improves nutrition among children, provides opportunities for socialisation as well as challenging social norms (such as giving priority to Dalit and Adivasi women in appointment of cooks) and so on.

Also read: What Freedoms, Which Schools for the Millions of Abandoned ‘Offline’ Children?

A recent study by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) even suggests that the mid-day meal scheme in India has intergenerational effects on child nutrition through improving the mother’s health and education levels.

In recent years, however, the scheme has been neglected and the much-needed reforms towards improving meal quality, creating better infrastructure and putting in place stronger systems for accountability and monitoring have not been undertaken. The PM Poshan release mentions some highlights that will be undertaken such as promoting school nutrition gardens and using locally grown traditional food items with the help of farmers producer organisations and women self-help groups (as part of ‘Vocal for Local Atmanirbhar Bharat’).

Some states have already begun implementing such initiatives, recognised as ‘innovations’ in the official documents, and it is desirable for these initiatives to become one of the stated agendas of the scheme. This can contribute to boosting the local economy as well as achieving dietary diversity in a decentralised and sustainable manner. Millets, green vegetables etc. which have essential micronutrients and are currently lacking in the school meals can be included.

Another recent announcement by the prime minister on mandatory rice fortification, goes against this principle of ‘Vocal for Local’ and is more centralising in nature. (Many reports suggest rice fortification is ineffective against malnutrition, and analysts argue that we need to be extremely cautious when it comes to addressing micronutrient deficiencies in India through the process of fortification.)

This announcement, one hopes, will therefore bring back the attention on strengthening the local food system and improving diets for all.

The PM Poshan also makes social audit of the scheme mandatory, which again is a step in the right direction – something the NFSA also mandates. The new components of the PM Poshan are extending the scheme to students studying in pre-primary or Bal Vatikas linked to government schools and a special provision for providing supplementary nutrition items to children in aspirational districts and districts with high prevalence of anaemia.

While the details of the latter are yet to be revealed, for the former these children should have already been receiving one meal a day through the anganwadi programme. The NFSA mandates that all children in the age group of six months to six years shall be give one free meal a day. So, it is not clear whether this is an additional allocation or an administrative change of where the pre-school children will get a meal from.

Also read: Education in India Has Plunged Into a Crisis. Just Reopening Schools Isn’t Enough.

Poor budget allocation

What raises the suspicion that this announcement of a ‘new’ scheme might just be a damp squib is the financial outlays that have been provided. The release states that the financial outlay of the Union government for the for the five-year period 2021-22 to 2025-26 will be Rs 54061.73 crore. The equivalent budget allocation for the mid-day meal scheme for 2020-21 was Rs 11,000 crore and for 2021-22, it was Rs 11,500 crore.

Therefore, the given amount suggests that even in nominal terms we will not see any increase in budgets for the scheme over the next four years. This is very disappointing given the fact that the mid-day meal scheme has been suffering from stagnant budgets over the last few years. Economist Jean Drèze estimates that taking inflation into account, the allocation for the mid-day meal scheme has been reduced by 32.3% between the years 2014 and 2021.

Therefore, with such budgetary allocations one cannot expect much of change in the present mid-day meal scheme even though the scheme now has the prime minister’s name attached to it (PM Poshan – Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman). With schools being closed for over a year and household food security also being affected as a result of COVID-19, a revamped mid-day meal scheme is indeed required – one that takes into account the existing gaps in the scheme as well as goes the extra mile to compensate for the loss of the last 18 months.

For this a number of things could be done such as including eggs in the mid-day meal scheme at least twice a week, introducing a breakfast, extending the school meals to include children up to class 10 and enhancing the payments for cooks and helpers. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing is only some cosmetic changes along with an unwillingness to invest resources in this essential scheme for children.

The last time mid-day meal scheme was in news was in August this year, when it was reported that the finance ministry rejected a proposal of the education ministry for Rs 4,000 crore to introduce breakfast in schools – a recommendation of the New Education Policy. This probably gives a clearer indication of the actual intent of the government and its priority for children’s meals.

Dipa Sinha teaches at School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, New Delhi.