Mid-day Meal Scheme- An Open Appeal to ISKCON

There is no single intervention in the Public School System that has done greater good for the school going kids of India than the Mid-day meal Scheme. This welfare measure did not come easily; the highest court of the land had to issue a diktat to the States and threaten action for contempt for non-compliance before they fell in line. All the impressive statistics that we see in the area of enrollment and retention are due to this single initiative that went to ensure that the children get at least one hot meal a day to minimum nutritional standards. The scheme has still its shortfalls, thanks to the pusillanimity of the Administration in the States which keep raising issues on the admissible rates for reimbursement, scope of coverage and the inclusion of nutritional supplements. Apparently they have always adequate funds to bail out dubious ventures in other Sectors but cannot find money to feed the vulnerable sections of the new generation. Politics here follow the famous Quote: “What has the next generation done for us to merit special attention for us”.
I still recall the days when Sikshana had to feed nearly 1000 kids in three schools; we could obviously not have preached quality of education to children on empty stomach. Once the State stepped in 2004, the situation eased up quite a bit for us; we did not have to bother about this burden. I have since been following up the progress of this scheme with considerable interest.
Initially, a provision of Rs 2.75 per child was made by the State, the good gesture tainted by many graceless caveats. Typical of them was the stipulation that the reimbursement of materials will be computed based on the actual attendance on a daily basis. At the school, the HM has to initiate cooking with release of material well before the actual numbers are available; kids are known to come late often and they cannot be denied lunch.  It was left to the schools to sort this out; everyone knows that it is such unworkable rules that encourage malpractices and dishonesty among people who would prefer to be law abiding citizens given a chance.
After six years, this admissible rate for a meal stands somewhere near Rs 3.25, the figure depending on how it is reckoned. Though a lot can be written about this subject, which will not reflect well on the State, the focus of this blog is not on this but on another aspect of the scheme that calls for a lot more thought and introspection- the sourcing and distribution. Typically, the school is expected to find its own way to feed the kids with the material supplied. In an urban environment, the logistics could pose problems, given the acute shortage of space in most schools, thereby restricting their options.
The picture becomes different as one goes away from this environment to rural areas. Here, the schools have space not only for cooking but also for growing vegetables for the menu; there is ready availability of local labor too for preparation. Though the remunerations admissible for the cook and the helper are not princely sums, they were still adequate for local entrepreneurship to evolve in these communities which enabled the schools to ensure that the kids are fed well. In many areas, women’s self help groups have come forward to take up the job. This is really a very welcome development. If there are any people with a real interest in the welfare of these kids, it should be these women- more so when some of their own children are likely to be in the same schools. This did put some pressure on the HM’s since they had to keep accounts for money and material, a responsibility grudgingly accepted by them over a period of time. The scheme is now however stabilized and is doing well enough within the given limitations.    
The story unfortunately neither starts nor ends here. Historically, a few initiatives existed that were catering to this need prior to the State announcing its welfare measure.  While it was a very commendable effort at that time, their continuance under the new regime where the State has taken up the responsibility is what causes concern with wide ranging implications.
For understandable reasons, such initiatives are popular in urban areas where space is at a premium; and cooking and distribution within the school premises are logistic nightmares. However when they start straying into areas beyond urban clusters, the issue becomes more complex, requiring a closer look. In far flung rural areas, it makes eminent sense to prepare food locally where it is required for consumption.
I have serious issues with one such initiative in Karnataka, which is actively supported by the State; this is Akshaya Patra from ISKCON. It is one of the most popular ones around Bangalore City and attracts lot of Donor attention. Unlike many of the other ventures in the City, the meal provided by this Organization is subsidized by the State; while exact figures are not available, it is highly likely that the subsidy is higher than the cost incurred by it under its own scheme. The coverage extends to a few hundred thousand children out of a possible 8 million in the State, with no prospects of extension across the state. I do not see the logic behind categorizing the kids under the PES into two streams: one fit for this preferential allotment and the other consigned to the routine State designed menu. Having done that, the State and ISKCON could have restricted the area of coverage to urban clusters, however unfair this would have been for the majority of kids in the public school stream. On the other hand, we find that their operation is progressively expanding with more centralized production facilities and distribution nodes into semi-urban and rural areas.  Unfortunately many Sikshana schools fall under the periphery of some of these new facilities; as a result we come under constant pressure from these schools to get them included in this ‘fortunate’ list.
It is unacceptable to me that some kids in public schools are selected for a Rs 6.5 meal, while the rest under the same system are advised to get reconciled to a Rs 3.2 one. Apart from all the distinctions that we have created based on castes, classes etc., we seem to be introducing a new one along the urban/ rural divide. There are more arguments against this irrational approach. It is an environmentally unfriendly scheme since it involves movement of prepared meals from the central kitchen to the schools in remote areas. Further it deprives the local community of employment opportunities that a decentralized solution would have provided. More to the point, the bonding that this brings about between the schools and the communities is also lost.
Notwithstanding the above, I admire Akshaya Patra for all that it does and keep doing for the welfare of the children. I have only one appeal to make to them. Instead of replicating the efforts of the State, can they try and supplement them? If they care to look around, I am sure they will find many interesting possibilities.  
It is not as if the State has wiped out hunger with one meal for school going kids.   From my personal experience I can affirm that many of these children now come to school without breakfast, since their families are assured their wards will get one square meal at noon. The children now go through three hours of schooling on an empty stomach, eagerly waiting for the lunch bell; some schools even advance the timings to accommodate these kids.  
I am sure it is within the capabilities of Akshaya Patra Foundation to find a far better option than the one adopted by them at present.

E S Ramamurthy


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6 Responses to “Mid-day Meal Scheme- An Open Appeal to ISKCON”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous said…

    Hi, I don’ know where you got the idea that ISKCON is getting more that the cost of the meal. Actually the goverment (both central and state) give only half og the cost of the meal to ISKCOn. The rest is raised by ISKCON through donations. Also, the cost of building the high tech kitchens and transport vans is borne solely by ISKCON. This saves the government crores and crores of rupees. Also, Akshaya Patra has an independent board and indepedent auditors. Their financial statements are clear and open. They have a reputation for honesty and integrity unmatched by any other NGO’s. That’s why they get the tremendous support from around the world.

  2. ESR Says:

    Thanks for your feedback. Please let me clear the points one by one. I had not cast any aspersions on the working of ISKCON or their integrity anywhere; neither have I contested the fact they are spending crores on the food chain. In fact, I have given credit to the latter and only suggested if they could not allocate it better than in the way they are doing now. Regarding the subsidy from Govt, there are many ways of computing it since it is in kind, like the rice supplied from the PDS system; some place the sum above the cost incurred by the State. Even assuming that it is not more but equal to what the State is funding, everything that I have written applies still. The cost of the meal for some kids works out to double the amount of what of what the Stateis spending on the rest, which is undesirable. The case for decentralizing the entire process isstill very valid. I think my comments should be taken in a positive sense; one should try to see if there is a case for ISKCON being more effective with the limited resources that they have, rather than become defensive about what they do. My stand in all such cases has consistently been this; the efforts of the civil society should be to supplement the State and not to replicate it. Personally I would like to be seen as pro decentralization than anti something.

  3. Rajeev Annaluru Says:

    Dear ESR,

    Given that I am an admirer of the work of both Sikshana as well as APF, let me weigh in with my opinion which, hopefully, would be an unbiased observation.

    1) In my opinion, the approximately Rs 3.5 or so that the government provides per meal is a grossly insufficient number to provide a decently nutritious diet let alone a good healthy diet to the kids. Though I have not personally seen the quality of food distributed by APF, I am pretty sure its of a much better quality than what the govt schools can provide with their paltry funding. Looking at the Rs 6.2 per meal number that APF spends (from their 2010 annual report), I would venture to say that Govt should take that number as a more realistic representation of how much it actually costs to provide healthy meals to kids and increase their funding appropirately. In essence, I think I would try to negotiate with the govt to increase their funding for the “mid day meals” program, rather than look for APF to scale back their efforts or worry about the inequality between urban or rural centers. At least a few kids are getting a healthy diet they deserve through APF’s program.

    2) I completely agree with you that the centralized model of production comes with an unnecessary carbon footprint associated with it. Although APF is looking to decentralize (again referenced from their 2010 annual report) it is too small in scale.

    Infact (as an idea to explore) APF should look to partner with the govt’s social welfare program like NREGA where the womens self help groups in the villages work to provide the kids with the mid-day meal and the cost of their operation gets covered under NREGA. That way APF can play just a supplementary role in the mid-day meal program and ensure that they source the right kind of food materials to these self help groups.

    In my many years of association with you, I have to admit that, I have been profoundly influenced by your line of thought that NGOs should not create parallel systems to the ones that the govt runs. However, there will always be a few cases where building a new system completely from scratch (even thought it may be a parallel one) goes on to prove to the govt as to how its model should have been designed in the first place and what the short comings are of its existing model. I think APF is one such model where if they put it a little bit more thought into their operating model it can be inducted by the govt for replication of a larger scale.

  4. ES Ramamurthy Says:

    Thanks, Rajeev. I dont think I could have put it better. There are strong cases for:
    Increased allocation from Govt for the scheme
    APF to work with local groups to inhance the impact of their resources
    APF need to revisit their options and strategies; that was my aim in writing this piece.I hope this voice reaches them

  5. nath Says:

    Has any thing changed in the two years gone by sir?

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