Tuesday, May 21, 2002
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By Jean Dreze
In an enlightening note of dissent on education policy written in 1955, B.V. Krishnamurthi, a distinguished economist, castigated the Government for applying "the calculus of the private grocery merchant to a matter like education". This mindset is alive and well, judging from the reluctance of many State Governments to implement the recent Supreme Court order directing them to introduce cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools.
It is hard to think of a better use of public funds at this time than the provision of mid-day meals in primary schools. At least four arguments can be invoked in favour of school meals. First, school meals boost school participation. This argument alone would probably justify the cost of a national mid-day meal programme, considering the crucial importance of elementary education for economic development, social equity and participatory democracy.
Second, school meals could help reduce child undernutrition, especially in the form of micro-nutrient deficiencies. Even where school meals have limited nutritional value, they would at least ensure that children are not compelled to study on an empty stomach.
The third argument relates to social equity: given that the children who attend Government schools come mainly from poor families, school meals can be seen as a form of economic support for disadvantaged sections of the population. In this respect, school meals are more effective than many other programmes of targeted income support.
Fourth, there is a strong argument for school meals from the point of view of child socialisation. Specifically, school meals help break caste barriers as children from different castes learn to eat together. This feature has not escaped the attention of the higher castes, judging from recent stories of high-caste resistance to the introduction of mid-day meals in the local school.
The case for school meals is particularly strong today, when 60 million tonnes of grain are lying idle in public warehouses. These food mountains have become a resilient national embarrassment. Grain withdrawn from these warehouses is effectively costless, since the procurement expenses have already been borne. In fact, using idle food stocks for school meals would save money, by reducing storage costs.
Of course, additional resources are required for transport and cooking arrangements. In recent Supreme Court hearings, State Governments have argued that they "cannot afford" these overhead costs. Yet, the same Governments often borrow thousands of crores of rupees at short notice to grant pay hikes to their employees, or to procure more and more grain from vocal farmers. The future of Indian children cannot be kept hostage to these lopsided priorities.
The Rajasthan Government deserves credit for initiating a school-meal programme within the Supreme Court deadline. Public pressure, notably from the People's Union for Civil Liberties, has played a role in this initiative, and there is an important lesson here for popular organisations elsewhere. This early experience also shows that the success of a school-meal programme depends crucially on adequate planning, infrastructure and supervision. A helper is needed to cook the food, since teachers (or pupils for that matter) cannot and should not be expected to do it. Safeguards are needed to ensure the quality of the food and its hygienic preparation. Adequate provisions are also required for utensils, fuel, transport, and so on.
A token school-meal programme, where poor-quality grain is handed over to the teachers to cook with improvised facilities during school hours, could do more harm than good.
In other States, the Governments are embracing the Supreme Court order with varying convictions. Some have introduced school meals, or are planning to do so when schools reopen in July. Others have submitted petitions asking for extra time, financial assistance, or other concessions. A few recalcitrant States have remained silent or even stated that they would challenge the order.
The lagging States received an unexpected wake-up call on April 9, when collective demands for mid-day meals were voiced in more than a hundred districts through public hearings, dharnas, rallies, and other events. Several States, however, are yet to fall in line. In Bihar, demonstrations took place in every district, and also in Patna where thousands of children clamoured for mid-day meals with empty plates. Yet the Education Minister told a delegation of concerned citizens that he could "not promise anything" as far as school meals were concerned.
One might have expected State Governments to welcome the school-meal programme as an opportunity to win votes at relatively low cost. Indeed, the scheme is likely to be quite popular, and it is not very expensive for the State Governments, given that the Central Government is supplying the grain for free. In most States, however, there is no sign of such enthusiasm. There is something deeply defective about a democracy where people's basic needs count for so little in electoral politics. The syndrome was painfully evident in the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh: development issues were virtually invisible from electoral debates.
This feature of Indian democracy was aptly summed up by Laloo Prasad Yadav in a recent interview. In response to a pointed question about Bihar's development record, Mr. Yadav shot back: "What has vikas (development) to do with raj satta (political power)? There is no link between the two. Only intellectuals think otherwise." Hopefully, the citizens will prove him wrong in due course.
(The writer is Visiting Professor at the Delhi School of Economics)
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