It is said that those who control the supply of food also manage to control politics. One does not need to look too far to be able to appreciate the nuanced forms it has played out in the Indian context. We can clearly observe how an efficient system of food distribution to the citizens through state-sponsored schemes can deliver political gains. While the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) was a response to the Covid crisis in India, the electoral results in the recent assembly elections are also being viewed by several experts and political pundits as benefits of giving food at the right time to the hungry and the poor. Drawing an inference from this, any large-scale food security programme that caters to the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable communities will certainly have a significant bearing on political outcomes.
In India, about 118 million children are fed on at least 200 school days in a year through the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDM), making it the largest scheme of its kind in the world. With an allocation of Rs 11,500 crore for FY 2021-22, it caters to children of Class I-VIII across 11.2 lakh government and government-aided schools in the country. As with any other school meal programme, it aims to kill two birds with a stone—improve nutritional intake and encourage enrolment and retention in schools. Moreover, there are additional positive fallouts as well. Such as improvement in food security at the household level and gender equity. Not just that, if supply linkages are drawn with local communities of farmers, including women, then it also serves to improve the livelihood opportunities of the community.
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A programme of this magnitude, if implemented well, can have far-reaching beneficial consequences for all stakeholders involved. In MDM’s long history of existence, there have been several success stories, starting from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, Andhra and even the lesser-known ones from Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
What began as an incentive in the early 20th century to attract children to school in Tamil Nadu has continued to have strong political support in the state since the times of leaders like Kamaraj, MGR and others. Interestingly, the success of Tamil Nadu predates the national-level initiatives in the late ’90s to provide school meals. It is said that MGR had once asked his officers to provide food on all days of the week but was told by them that children cannot be fed on holidays. The story further goes that MGR had retorted by asking his officers whether hunger has a holiday. Regardless of the veracity of this conversation, the point is that food and nutrition security as a universal right, including the rights of children, have to be met without any delays and lapses. A meal foregone or a meal that is substandard cannot be compensated for with the best of efforts.
Noting that there are certain advantages of cash transfers, several economists and nutritionists have continued to espouse the cause of providing in-kind transfer for ensuring nutritional security. The relevance of the same is also acknowledged under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013, which brought within its ambit the school noon meal (the commonly known mid-day meal) programme, among other food-based programmes. However, it is disturbing to note how within this larger canvas of food security (even during a global health pandemic), the issue of nutritional security seems to have been relegated to a relative back seat. For example, women self-help groups (SHGs) that had been roped in the State Rural Livelihoods Mission (in certain states, such as Jharkhand) to do the packing of monthly dry rations for school children during the first lockdown had to discontinue work for want of an MoU between the departments concerned. MDM was a casualty.
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When looked through the lens of alarming nutritional status of children in India, with the Global Hunger Index (2020) placing the country at the 101st spot among 116 countries, any misstep in health and nutrition plan implementations can have serious repercussions on the nutritional outcomes of the communities. In this light, and given that education is a subject in the concurrent list, the recent decision by some state governments (such as Karnataka) to remove eggs and the use of garlic and onions from the meals served through MDM in the state appears as yet another example of neglect of nutritional security of the school-going children. Moreover, it needs to be seen from the rights perspective, which has also been acknowledged within the NFSA. A quick scan of the menu across states suggests that dalia and khichdi appear quite prominently. Notably, these are low-cost options for the food suppliers, as does the removal of eggs, garlic and onions from the menu for MDM. Discounting the religious preferences of the suppliers of raw material to the MDM or even cooked food (through centralised kitchens run by NGOs), it is clear that the food and nutritional requirements as envisaged under the MDM scheme for school children are turning out to be victims at the intersection of politics and business interests.
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Eggs, with their diversity in nutrients and high digestibility, are considered a high nutritional quality food for adults and children. Eggs have been identified to represent the lowest cost animal source for proteins, iron, Vitamin B12, riboflavin, choline, and the second lowest cost source for zinc and calcium. The dietary guidelines for Indians by the National Institute of Nutrition mention the inclusion of eggs, flesh foods and fish to enhance the quality of diet. Respecting different diet preferences, it also states that vegetarians can derive almost all the nutrients from diets consisting of cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits and milk-based diets. Interestingly, Tamil Nadu does offer bananas as a substitute to those children not wanting to consume eggs.
Considering that over 70 per cent of the Indian population is non-vegetarian, with marginal difference in percentages between general population and scheduled castes and tribes, the hue and cry over inclusion of eggs in MDM is confounding. More often than not we fail to grasp the various determinants of diet, including but not limited to biological, physiological, economic, and social factors. A systematic review of dietary patterns in India supports the evidence that an average Indian diet cannot be defined as there are large variations in dietary patterns across the country. For example, dietary patterns from the East and South were more likely to be defined by meat or fish consumption than those from the North and West. Elements of personal taste and choice have a bearing on diet preferences too. Therefore, it is unnatural and absolutely unnecessary to impose personal diet preferences of institutions (based on religious or other grounds) on others.
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MDM cannot be simply left alone in the form of a policy statement, with funds allocated for implementation. It requires strong political leadership. The food menu cannot be allowed to be determined by political parties operating on myopic interests instead of food and nutrition scientists. When a scheme with tremendous potential to transform the nutritional landscape in the country gets mired in trivial politics, it not only takes the shine off the intervention but also leads to sub-optimal programme outcomes.
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It may be wiser for all the involved parties to direct their energies to strengthening the scheme by bridging possible gaps on the ground such as leakages, delayed payment of wages to cooks, and sub-standard quality food being served, among others. An analysis of sustainable school feeding programmes in 14 countries clearly points out that the strongest and most sustainable programmes are those that respond to a community need, are locally owned and incorporate some form of community involvement. Thus, some form of decentralisation by involving local communities-elected bodies as well as grassroot communities, such as SHGs, in decisions regarding MDM menus and sourcing of raw materials may prove to be beneficial. Legislation on the lines of the law passed by the Brazilian government, requiring cities to spend at least 30 per cent of their school budget on produce from family farmers, can help strengthen the livelihood source of the local community of farmers.
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The rechristening of MDM as ‘PM-POSHAN’ provides hope that the poshan (i.e., nutrition) component of the programme will drive its design and implementation. With a strong political leadership, the countervailing forces that are being created in the implementation of the MDM can be overcome. Perhaps, it makes stronger political sense to make the food menu of the MDM interesting and popular. The most recent development in Karnataka, where the state government is now planning to introduce eggs in the mid-day meal menu despite opposition, may be the light at the end of the tunnel, with other states hopefully following suit.
(This appeared in the print edition as "We Need No Politics")
(Views expressed are personal)
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Roopashree Shanker is a development consultant specialising in social protection, nutrition and gender & governance
Nikhil Raj is a development economist, former director, TARINA and deputy head of programmes, UN world food programme