On September 29, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the “National Plan for PM Poshan” in schools, details of which were published in a press release. Although full details of the program are not yet available, this news has been covered extensively by print and electronic media. From program details and financial expenses, it appears to be just a repackaging of the school lunch program with a new name and facade.
The Supreme Court, in its decision in the Right to Food case in 2001, ordered that all children in public primary schools receive a hot and cooked meal every school working day. While a few states like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and others already provided a cooked meal in schools, in other states dry rations were distributed to schools once a month as part of the National Support Program. Nutrition for Primary Education (NP-NSPE).
The program was revised by the central government in 2004 to include cooking costs to cover other ingredients and the implementation of a cooked meal and in 2007 it was extended to cover children in upper primary schools (classes 6-8). The National Food Safety Act (NFSA) also includes the provision of midday meals to children in grades 1 to 8 in public schools as one of the rights under the law. Schedule II of the law specifies the minimum amounts of calories and protein that the meal must contain and the rules that have been enacted under this law provide more details on the implementation.
The midday meal program, as it is commonly known, has been by far one of the government’s best-implemented social assistance programs and is also well received by communities. Much research and evidence, both in India and around the world, shows that school meals contribute to child development in several ways. While the provision of cooked meals at school increases the enrollment rate as well as the attendance of children, it helps solve the problem of hunger in the classroom, improves nutrition in children, provides opportunities for socialization and challenges social norms (such as prioritizing Dalit and Adivasi women in appointing cooks) and so on.
A recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) even suggests that the midday meal program in India has intergenerational effects on children’s nutrition by improving the health and educational level of the mother. .
In recent years, however, the program has been neglected and the reforms needed to improve the quality of meals, create better infrastructure and put in place stronger systems of accountability and monitoring have not been undertaken. PM Poshan’s press release mentions some highlights that will be undertaken, such as the promotion of nutrition gardens in schools and the use of traditional foods grown locally with the help of farmer organizations and self-help groups. of women (as part of “Vocal for Local Atmanirbhar Bharat”).
Some States have already started to implement such initiatives, recognized as “innovations” in official documents, and it is desirable that these initiatives become one of the displayed agendas of the mechanism. This can help stimulate the local economy as well as achieve food diversity in a decentralized and sustainable way. Mils, green vegetables, etc. that contain essential micronutrients and currently lacking in school meals can be included.
Another recent announcement by the Prime Minister on compulsory fortification of rice goes against this principle of ‘Vocal for Local’ and is more centralizing in nature. (Many reports suggest that rice fortification is ineffective against malnutrition, and analysts argue that we need to be extremely careful when it comes to addressing micronutrient deficiencies in India through the fortification process. )
This announcement will therefore hopefully bring the focus back to strengthening the local food system and improving diets for all.
Prime Minister Poshan is also making the regime’s social audit mandatory, which is once again a step in the right direction – something the NFSA is also demanding. The new components of PM Poshan extend the curriculum to pre-primary or Bal Vatikas students linked to public schools and a special provision to provide additional nutritional items to children in ambitious districts and districts with high prevalence of anemia.
While the details of the latter have not yet been revealed, for the former, these children should already have received one meal per day as part of the anganwadi program. The NFSA requires that all children in the age group six months to six years receive one free meal per day. Thus, it is not clear whether this is an additional allowance or an administrative change in where preschoolers will receive a meal.
Bad budget allocation
What raises the suspicion that this announcement of a “new” regime could be nothing but a wet firecracker is the financial expenses that have been provided. The statement indicates that the financial expenditure of the Union government for the five-year period 2021-2022 to 2025-2026 will be Rs 54,061.73 crore. The equivalent budget allocation for the midday meal program for 2020-21 was Rs 11,000 crore and for 2021-22 it was Rs 11,500 crore.
Therefore, the amount given suggests that even in nominal terms, we will not see any increase in plan budgets over the next four years. This is very disappointing considering that the midday meal program has suffered from stagnant budgets in recent years. The economist Jean Drèze estimates that, taking into account inflation, the allowance for the midday meal plan was reduced by 32.3% between the years 2014 and 2021.
Therefore, with such budget allocations, one cannot expect many changes in the current midday meal schedule even though the schedule is now named after the Prime Minister (PM Poshan – Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman) . With schools closed for more than a year and household food security also affected due to COVID-19, a revamped lunch program is indeed needed – a program that takes into account existing gaps in the program. as well as the extra kilometer to make up for the loss of the last 18 months.
For this a number of things could be done, such as including eggs in the midday meal program at least twice a week, introducing breakfast, extending school meals to include children up to grade 10 and improved payments for cooks and helpers. Unfortunately, we are only seeing a few cosmetic changes as well as a reluctance to invest resources in this essential program for children.
The last time the midday meal program made the news was in August this year, when it was reported that the Ministry of Finance had rejected a proposal from the Ministry of Education of Rs 4,000. crore to introduce breakfast in schools – a recommendation of the new education policy. This probably gives a clearer indication of the government’s real intention and priority for children’s meals.
Dipa Sinha teaches at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, New Delhi.