Food For Thought

This article is an adapted version of an op-ed article written by Akansha Yadav for The Hindu in July 2013. It is based on the findings of a pilot social audit carried out for 40 schools of Khammam and Chittoor districts in Andhra Pradesh by the SSAAT of the Mid Day Meal Scheme.

This study was commissioned by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was carried out in two phases over a period of one month. It involved gauging awareness levels of parents through door-to-door assessments, training parents on understanding scheme entitlements and subsequently engaging them in auditing service provision levels. Direct audits were also carried out by the SSAAT team on student-access to MDMS scheme provisions. 

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Potharaju Usha is a student of 6th standard of Bajumallaiahgudem Zilla Parishad High School of Singareni mandal, Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh. Her parents work as daily wage labourers and have to leave early in the morning for work. Her mother, Nagamani is unable to prepare breakfast as she can neither afford it nor does she have the time to cook. However, she mentions that she goes to work without any worries because she knows that both her children would get cooked meals in the school every day. When we asked her whether she has visited the school to ascertain the quality of food being served, she smiles and says “my children are served mid-day meals at the school and my daughter says that she gets to eat egg once a week which takes care of my primary concern”.

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Children are served the Mid Day Meal

 

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The Mid Day Meal being prepared

Rambabu, 35 yrs old and member of a School Management Committee (SMC), engages in a discussion with the head master of Karepally school in the same mandal. He is interested in knowing how the rice and grains are being procured by the school and the menu of the day. He goes on to enquire with the cook-cum-helpers (CCH) how they decide the quality of food and why there is a noticeable lack of vegetables and pulses in the daily food being served to children. When asked about his purpose and motivation, he passionately describes his new role as Social Auditor, School Management Committee (SASMC). He states his keenness to participate in planning and monitoring of school activities where his children study and finally getting a chance to do so as a SASMC.

Lakshmi, a mother of two children and a member of Singareni self help group (SHG), actively participates in the discussions and decision making sessions of her group with an impressive zeal. She has studied up till 7th standard in Karepally ZPSS (Zila Parishad Secondary School) and has admitted one of her child in the 1st standard of the same school. As another SASMC, she ardently engages in a discussion with the CCH who has been in the school from when she was a student.

In March 2013, at the behest of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, pilot social audit of the MDMS in 40 schools of Khammam and Chittoor districts in Andhra Pradesh took place. For this, many parents like Rambabu and Lakshmi were trained who volunteered to become SASMCs and carry out verification of quality of rice and food served to children, inspection of cooking area, adequacy of cooking cost per child and the appointment of CCHs and other facilities provided in the school. Rambabu and Lakshmi, along with 240 other parents as SASMC, all of whom already belong to SMCs (as mandated under the Right to Education Act, 2009) constituted facilitators for conducting social audits.

Social audit is a tool for public vigilance and for generating awareness and ensuring transparency and accountability in government welfare schemes. The training constitutes methods to procure documents by using Right to Information, explanations of government orders and other nuances of the welfare schemes, cross verifying government records such as muster rolls, measurement books etc. The objective of training rural youth who come from the wage-seekers’ families is to encourage participation of people in demanding accountability and transparency of welfare schemes that are directed towards them. In the larger picture, the aim is to promote self-governance at the village and grassroots level. (Read more about Social Audits in our previous post here)

In almost all the schools, quantity and quality of rice, pulses, other food on the menu and facilities were found far from adequate and desired nutritional standards. These observations and findings are similar to previous surveys done on MDMS implementation in other parts of the country. Though here, the difference lies in the fact that instead of any media and third party verifying and reporting on these issues it is the parents and immediate beneficiaries of the scheme who conducted the same- a crucial step towards empowering the beneficiaries to demand transparency and accountability. By participating in social audit parents directly questioned the system and suggested ways for better implementation of this much celebrated hunger intervention. Rambabu and Lakshmi are engulfed with a sense of belonging and empowerment. They are aware that they are making a significant contribution to the society with their participation. Over 240 SASMCs for 15 days enthusiastically went door to door and school to school and reached out to more than 2,000 parents and 40 CCHs for better mid-day meals for 4657 students.

Their social audit findings were consolidated in a report format and read out in a public hearing or people’s open forum which was attended by Director, MDM, Government of India; Additional Director, MDM, Andhra Pradesh; District Education Officers, principals, teachers, parents, and media. In the public hearing parents were vocal about basic issues like poor quality of rice, pulses, vegetables and inadequate quantities of eggs being served to the children, lack of potable drinking water and clean toilet facilities in the school. The fact that they were directly presenting their views and grievances to the representatives of the implementing agencies without going through the red tape was much appreciated. (Read about the role of social audits and accountability for good RTE and MDM implementation here)

Despite these grim issues, they did not fail to make note of the benefits and positive aspects of this welfare scheme at the public hearing. They did not need to worry any more about providing at least one meal for their children and their regular attendance in school. Women who are employed as cooks are from the local community and know the children and parents personally. This familiarity is a source of relief for parents and is an employment opportunity for the women.

In the public hearing these women appointed as cooks also voiced their grievances about low salaries and un-timely payments and issues of costly cylinders (Chittoor district). They also asserted that the cooking cost of Rs.4.00 per child (at primary level) and Rs. 4.65 per child (at upper primary level) provided by the government is highly inadequate. It is interesting to note here, that according to the recent Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on State Finances for the state of Andhra Pradesh (2011-12), the government has been able to spend only Rs. 673 crores against an allocation of Rs. 1112 crores for providing Mid-Day Meals to children, which translates into mere 61% absorption and usage of funds. Moreover, of Rs 15.05 crores lump sum provision that was provided for school education, the entire amount of Rs. 15.05 crores was surrendered. The impact of this is clearly evident in the social audit findings as well where it was proven that budget allocation and expenditure directly impacts the quality of the implementation of the scheme at the grassroots level.

Post the public hearing in Chittoor district, the decision to increase the honorarium of the CCH from Rs. 1000 to Rs. 1500 per month and cooking cost from Rs. 4.00 to Rs 4.25 (primary level) and Rs. 4.65 to Rs. 5.00 (upper primary level) was announced by the Director, MDM, Government of India. Significant changes like these have been brought about by efforts of the stakeholders at the grassroots level of this programme. They have quietly gone about doing their bit for the society and demanding accountability without any overt display of their actions.  The aim of the scheme is to fulfill multiple objectives while ensuring adequate calories and nutrition to pre-primary and primary school students. From breaking caste barriers as all children, sit and eat together and providing employment to women, it achieves much more than just being a school lunch programme. There is no formula for successful implementation either – it has worked well in places where it is wholly administered by the state and been a disaster where it is being implemented in partnerships with NGOs. Thus, government must ensure that social audits in partnership with the beneficiaries, facilitated by agencies that have expertise in training community in monitoring should be encouraged.

Last year in July, at least 22 children lost their lives in the fatal Mid Day Meal (MDM) served in a school in Saran district of Bihar. Preliminary reports suggested that the school lacked storage facility for food grains which led to their contamination and this horrific tragedy.  Amongst other causes, a poison theory has also been floated, though whatever reason emerges, it still remains a deplorable tale of apathy, indifference and implementation failure of the world’s largest hunger intervention. Even in one of the better performing districts of Nevyelli in Tamil Nadu, more than 100 girls fainted and were admitted to a hospital on complaints of nausea and giddiness post consumption of mid-day meal in the same week. A crucial welfare scheme that reaches out to more than 12 crore children every day, cannot run either without a strong commitment of implementation officials and bureaucracy or without a strong public accountable system. Ultimately parents should be trained to monitor the quality, infrastructure for supply cum storage, and nutritional standards of the food grains being served; as well as provided a platform where they can hold the implementing agency accountable.

With ordinances such as the ‘Right to Food’ being discussed in the Parliament and the enormous cost to exchequer for implementing the same, it becomes important that these monitoring institutions at grassroots level are strengthened. The people towards whom entitlements are directed are encouraged to stand up to demand transparency and accountability from those who are responsible to deliver the same. This is possible only if government guarantees four rights to the people who engage in a social audit exercise – provide them access to information, ensure they can engage in verification, provide a platform to voice their findings and grievances and ensure that they can do this entire exercise in a threat-free environment. Unless stringent monitoring mechanisms such as these are put in place, pilferage, non-performance and eventual failure of these social policies cannot possibly be avoided.

– Akansha Yadav

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Our previous post on the state of RTE and MDMS implementation available here

Our Previous post detailing the social audit process (specifically for the NREGA scheme) available here 

Photo credits: Anonymous

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