The health and nutrition objectives of MDM can be comprehensively achieved only with the successful implementation of other interventions like regular de-worming and giving vitamin and other micro-nutrient supplements like iron, folic acid etc. to the children depending upon the deficiency found in particular areas. This is very important as malnutrition is a silent emergency for the health care of the students in the age group of 6-14 years.
Direct income support to eligible disadvantaged households has often been suggested as alternative to MDMS. However this would not guarantee sufficient food consumption for children as the households may instead choose to buy other goods, and sometimes even liquor in place of food. Another alternative is the food stamps which also has the same problems.
The provision of essential infrastructure for MDMS must be made. This includes kitchen sheds, utensils etc. Fire safety norms should be strictly followed to avoid any fire tragedy. For environment protection less polluting fuels should be used. The school administration must guard against theft of kitchen utensils and food grains etc.
A number of independent evaluation studies on the mid day meal scheme conducted by different agencies in various parts of the country find that MDM has succeeded in motivating the students and enhanced the attendance rate and the retention of students, the increase being more marked with respect to girls and children belonging to SC/ST categories.
The mid day meal scheme has aided in active learning of children and indirectly improved their academic performance and learning achievement. MDM is facilitating healthy growth of children, inculcating healthy eating habits and fostering social equality, with children from different castes and religions sitting and eating together. This is also minimising the impact of gender inequality in nutrition that is widely prevalent in our society. It has also helped in reducing the tendency of children for purchasing eatables from hawkers, which are often unhealthy and unhygienic.
There is a wide-spread belief that provision of MDM meal disrupts class room processes, and that teachers spend more time in supervising meal preparation than class room teaching, but this is more a misconception than a fact. In MDMS the teachers are not assigned any such responsibility which will hamper teaching-learning. Their role is only supervisory. MDMS programme is making use of the services of Aanganwari workers/ mahila mandals/ water carriers or the cooks-cum-helpers. They are paid honorarium as per government approved rates. However, the payment of cooks-cum-helpers is not regular.
Some of the schools do not maintain proper records and documentation of MDMS. This should be corrected immediately otherwise it may encourage misuse of funds and materials provided for MDMS. To ensure this, incentives to the concerned teachers for handling MDMS programme should be considered. This will bring in more accountability among teachers who in the existing system may not be much enthusiastic in doing the extra work.
There was a suggestion in the media and the Parliament to replace a fresh MDM with packed food like biscuits, fruit bars etc. as a measure to stem corruption found to be associated with the programme. The fact, however, remains that nothing can ever replace a warm cooked meal. Moreover this step will only lead to centralisation of corruption and not eradication of corruption.
In some schools the students have to carry their utensils daily from their homes. This might be causing lot of inconvenience to the children. Moreover, in some schools safe and clean potable water is not available for drinking and cooking. Many children do not wash their hands before taking their meals. The cooking practices followed may not take care of the health and hygiene which is reflected in the frequent news reports of groups of students being admitted to hospitals after taking MDM in schools. Thus, there should be regular and effective evaluation of the implementation of the MDMS programme.
The actual cooking cost often exceeds the approved per child per day cooking cost. This problem has been compounded drastically this financial year as the wholesale food prices touched 10-year high with food inflation around 20 per cent. High food inflation has been hurting the mid day meal scheme severely as the prices of items used in the scheme increased sharply. Food inflation has been on the rise even when the overall inflation has been quite low or negative. In the previous year also, the food inflation was high at 10 per cent.
The approved cooking cost must be revised upwards periodically keeping in view the inflation, specially the food inflation. Moreover the funds for the scheme should be released in time so that the teachers do not have to spend from their own pocket as it has a demoralising impact on them.
The Government of India, on November 24, 2009, enhanced the cooking cost (excluding the labour and administrative charges) to Rs. 2.50 for primary and Rs. 3.75 for upper primary. The letter states that these cooking costs will be further revised by 7.5% on April 1, 2010 and again on April 1, 2011. The payment of honorarium to cook-cum-helper has been increased to Rs. 1,000/- per month. These revised norms have been implemented from December 1, 2009.
The important information regarding implementation of MDMS programme should be made public by each school under proactive disclosures and suo moto dissemination of information under the RTI Act, 2005 by displaying the information on the school notice board regularly. This will increase transparency and ensure accountability.
Most of the schools have started to serve a variety of food. However, fruits and eggs are rarely served and green vegetables are also rarely added in the meal. The use of locally available ingredients should be encouraged. This will also reduce the cost of the meal, apart from being readily acceptable.
Many children and parents are not happy with the quality of the meal provided. However, the blame has to be shared by the parents also as the community participation has not been very enthusiastic. The Village Education Committee (VEC), Mother Teacher Association (MTA), Parent Teacher Association, Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and women Self Help Groups (SHGs) should voluntarily offer their services for the successful implementation of MDMS programme. This will promote community participation and ensure greater teacher-parent interaction thus benefitting the child, who is the future of the nation.