Mid day meal: teacher's dilemma

In the last post about the African Farmer Game, that I wrote along with a University of Reading scholar, Chandni Singh, we talked about the dilemmas of development and planning. While the question of development planning in itself is a big one, any answer to it is bound to be very complex, especially in a diverse country like India where people are motivated by a range of drivers.

The empirical problem that we struggled with in the last post was, "should we invest in sending a child to school or should we instead use that money to better feed the family". At one point we choose to invest some money into education and as a result ended up loosing some members of the family due to inadequate food. This is a problem faced by several poor families in India (and of course in several other countries). Poor people often make this (very valid) argument that if they send their children to school, they (the children) would not be able to go to work and thus earn money to feed themselves and the family. As appalling as the argument may sound, it motivates several of these poor families to keep their children away from the schools and to force them into child labor. This in a way is also a question of freedoms. Economic unfreedom of the families is leading to social unfreedom for these children.

So, how do we send our children to school. Simple, we create an entitlement scheme to motivate these families to send the children to school. In India this entitlement scheme is called the Mid day Meal scheme. The scheme provides lunches (with specified nutrition requirements) to all children attending government schools in any state of India. This reduces the economic worries of the parents and motivates them to send their children to the schools. Reports in the past have suggested that the scheme has succeeded up to an extent in increasing children's attendance in school.

a school in rural Bihar
However, in my recent trip to India in which I spent about 10 months in various villages in Bihar I met several angry parents who blamed the mid day meal scheme for 'destroying' the education system. They claimed that these days the children come to the school with a bowl or a plate in their hand(the negative connotation of the begging bowl attached to it). They further argued that since the time they arrive in school, most children have their eyes firmly on the clock and start banging their plates and bowls as the clock touches 11:00 or 11:30 am (the time of meal being 12:00 pm). While most of these schools already work on the bare minimum staff capacity, the existing staff have to shoulder the additional responsibility of looking after the mid day meals. This means neither the students nor the teachers focus on the real target, education. With both the teachers and the students focusing more on the food, the parents argued that the level of education had gone down considerably.

I have a different point of view. These arguments generally come from the parent who have been sending their children to schools since before the beginning of the mid day meal scheme (hence, the comparison of before and after). In my view if the scheme has been successful in substantially increasing the attendance of the children from a certain socio-economic strata and even if 10% of these children focus on the studies and go on to do well, the scheme would make major contributions to India's new social structure by operationalising social mobility. Whether that would happen is still to be seen.

The mid day meal scheme has been in the news a lot recently and not for good reasons. A few days ago in the Chapra district of Bihar 23 children died after eating the mid day meal in their school. Several are still in the hospital. It is now being claimed that the food served to the children was laced with pesticides, the source of which is said to be the shop from which the ration was bought. We often talk about involving the community in the management of such schemes. In Bihar a group of villagers along with the village head manages the affairs of the school. Also, in this particular case one of the women who cooked the meal was also a parent of three children of the same school. She lost two of her children in the tragedy. So, how do we manage these schemes? These are certainly very elaborate schemes reaching to very small schools in small hamlets. But can we hide behind this argument? I don't think so. Just announcing an entitlement and rolling it out is not enough. Then it is just a scheme, not a solution. A solution needs a robust plan of implementation, management, reporting and accountability.

Involving the community is certainly a part of the solution but it must also include the empowerment of the part of the community that is mostly unable to speak or whose voice is generally muffled. Balance and dissemination of power needs to be a part of the process. It has often been argued that with the kind of social dynamics that India has, no development plan or scheme can be looked in a silo. A holistic plan needs to be developed that balances social, economic and political development.

Now, in Bihar the government is talking about a new rule where the principle of the school would have to taste the food before the children eat it. That is quality check, Indian style. First of all, in the Chapra case the children did find the food funny as soon as they tasted it but the deadly effects were seen later. The effects would be visible much later in case of an adult. So, I am not sure how the tasting by the headmaster would help. Although this might surely make the headmasters much careful about the mid day meal (since his/her life would be on line), a strong motivator (Indian style) for them to manage the affairs carefully. But what about selecting people who really care about the school, education and children? Does the government see that as a plausible plan?

Also, I always though that tasting by the headmaster before the children was always part of the rules. To give you a sense of the social complexity in the implementation of these schemes, I would end this post with a small story that I encountered during my fieldwork in Bihar.

A teacher's dilemma

I was working in Bilaspur, a small village on the side of a national highway connecting two districts to the south of the Ganges. Shiv Sagar Mishra is a resident of this village. A brahmin by caste, Mr. Mishra is a teacher and also the in-charge of the Bhimpur village high school. In one of our meeting he told me that the rules of the mid day meal scheme say that the in-charge must eat the food before the children. But Mr. Mishra never ate a meal at the school. On being asked he told me that the meals in the school are cooked by lower caste people and he being a brahman doesn't want to corrupt his religion by eating the food cooked by them ("apna dharma bhrast nahin karna chahta"). Mr. Mishra's supervisor is also a man who comes from the so called lower castes and often puts pressure on him to eat the meals before the children. But Mr. Mishra has successfully resisted until now. Mr. Mishra's supervisor tells him, "If you can't eat here, why be a teacher? Why don't you find some other job?" Mr. Mishra has a standard reply,"It doesn't matter what job I do, I would always find you". I think by 'you' he means the people like his supervisor. I think he mean the people of the lower caste.

In the last paragraph, the names of the people and the places have been changed and the quotes have been rephrased.


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