Vital Role: Children enjoying a mid-day meal at a primary school.
Vital Role: Children enjoying a mid-day meal at a primary school.

The 2006 Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) reveals that though incentives like free textbooks and mid-day meal schemes are often disparaged in public debates as ‘populist’, they help at a fundamental level: they do bring children to school. A look at how they are changing primary education…

The main message from survey is that many school incentives are reaching rural children and have contributed to improving enrolment rates.

School incentives play diverse roles. One aspect is to reduce the cost of education: the provision of uniforms and textbooks lighten the financial burden of sending children to school. Cooked mid-day meals and to a large extent, textbooks and uniforms, go directly to enrolled children. Two, some incentives encourage regular attendance, apart from boosting enrolment. Third, for children, textbooks, uniforms and meals make the school appealing and something to look forward to. Finally, school incentives are important for an equitable schooling experience. Wearing uniforms, sharing meals, using the same books foster a sense of equality which is of much value in itself.

The Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) was based on a survey of primary schooling in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh in 1996. The PROBE report found abysmally low coverage of incentive schemes. When the same villages were resurveyed in 2006, the numbers had increased dramatically: e.g., the proportion of schools that reported operational incentives had risen from 10 per cent to 49 per cent in the case of uniforms, and 47 per cent to 98 per cent for textbooks. Mid-days meals were reported to be served in 84 per cent of the sample schools and scholarships were being given in 81 per cent of the schools. This period has also been marked by substantial progress towards universal enrolment. In 2006, 95 per cent of children in the 6-12 year age group were enrolled in school.

The mid-day meal scheme

The introduction, universalisation and routinisation of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) have been the biggest change since 1996. At the time of the PROBE survey, most States were implementing the MDMS as a “dry ration” scheme (conditional on 80 per cent attendance, children were given 3 kg of grain to take home). Ten years down the line, 84 per cent of households reported that their child got a cooked meal. The problem of non-coverage was largely confined to Bihar and Jharkhand where just over half of the households reported that their child had been receiving the mid-day meal. At the time of the survey in 2006, Bihar had only just started rolling out the programme.

Important role

The mid-day meal goes beyond run-of-the-mill school incentives in several ways. The MDMS can play an important role in boosting enrolment and attendance: the food attracts children to school on a daily basis. It can be viewed as a nutritional supplement — children in government schools, in rural and urban areas alike, tend to be from poor families and one nutritious meal at school can enhance their health. In large parts, children now enjoy a varied menu through the week, including eggs. During an informal field visit, a child in Jashpur (Chhattisgarh) when asked what he got at school, rattled off a long menu which ended with “sab kuch milta hai!” (We get everything).

Another important role of the MDM is the socialisation role whereby children learn to eat together, share a meal, etc. This in turn contributes to weakening longstanding caste barriers. Further, the MDMS can be an important part of the child’s education: it provides an opportunity to teach the child crucial habits related to health and hygiene, nutrition and so on.

The results from the 2006 survey are encouraging. Most teachers (91 per cent) said that all children consumed the meal at school. There were some hints of caste discrimination: in nearly one-fifth of those schools where plates are supplied, teachers said that children bring their own plates. The practice of storing plates “separately” was reported in three per cent of such schools. On other counts, however, it seems that good practices were generally being followed: in 64 per cent of the schools, investigators observed that children washed their hands before eating, in 65 per cent of schools the space was cleaned before eating and in more schools (79 per cent) after eating.

If adequate arrangements for cooking and serving the meal are not made, then the MDM can be counterproductive by causing disruption (e.g., making it difficult for children to concentrate on studies). Adequate arrangements include proper cooking facilities and the appointment of cooks and helpers. Nearly half (48 per cent) of the teachers said that the MDM disrupts teaching activities which suggests that there is ample scope for improving cooking arrangements.

A majority (71 per cent) of the teachers wanted the MDM to continue. The proportion of teachers who wanted the MDM to continue was much higher (89 per cent) among those who felt that it does not disrupt teaching activities (among teachers who felt the scheme disrupts teaching activity, only half wanted it to continue). This suggests that with adequate arrangements, the remaining resistance to the scheme is likely to drop. One criticism of the MDM has been that children come to school only to eat and then they go away. Our survey found that this claim is not true. According to the investigators, 95 per cent of the schools remained open after the MDM.

Incentives and corruption

What is the scale of leakages in school incentive schemes? Investigators noted the number of students eligible for a particular scheme and the number who actually received these benefits from the schools records. In the case of textbooks, on average, 161 students were eligible for free textbooks, but only 144 got them. Thus, according to the school registers, 89 per cent of eligible beneficiaries got textbooks. On the other hand, the proportion of parents who said that their child had received free textbooks is 84 per cent. This suggests a “leakage” of just five per cent.

Leakages appear to be higher for incentives with a high “resale” value (scholarships for SC/ST students and uniforms). This is cause for serious concern, suggesting the urgent need to take steps to plug the leakages. In the mid-day meal scheme, there is anecdotal evidence that there may be deficiencies in the quality and quantity (e.g., the dal served is watery, the menu is not followed). However, the fact remains that most children in primary schools do get cooked food most of the time. Large-scale leakages from the MDMS seem to have been plugged.

Increased transparency

How has this happened? One possible explanation is that the resale value of food stolen from the MDM is small compared with other incentives such as scholarships. More importantly, simple transparency measures have contributed to the success of the MDM. To illustrate, the weekly menu is painted on school walls. This helps parents keep track of whether their child is getting what she/he is entitled to. The fact that meals are cooked locally, under the eyes of the parents, also makes it easier for them to monitor its implementation. The scheme has also been watched keenly by the media. This has helped raise awareness, which in turn has meant that stealing from the MDM is more difficult. People’s vigilance and media interest have been backed by a sustained people’s campaign for implementing the MDMS. The judiciary has played a positive role too. It was the November 28, 2002 interim order of the Supreme Court in the “right to food case” that triggered a sustained people’s campaign for the scheme. Recently, in Haryana, a headmaster and four teachers were sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for siphoning off money by inflating enrolment figures. Firm action of this sort can serve as an effective deterrent.

Free textbooks are another example of reasonable success as far as school incentives are concerned. Textbooks are the key to the learning process at school. The distribution of free textbooks lightens the financial burden of schooling. As noted above, in 2006, 98 per cent of schools reported the distribution of free textbooks (up from 47 per cent in 1996). Further, in the 2006-7 academic year, 72 per cent of schools distributed textbooks in good time (i.e. in June or July). Timeliness is important because their distribution towards the end of the academic year is useless. Other forms of aberration reported in 1996 (e.g., a class III child with a class V textbook) have also virtually disappeared. Finally, investigators also noted improvements in the content and presentation of textbooks.

The main message from the 2006 survey is that many school incentives are reaching rural children and have contributed to improving enrolment rates. An interesting aside is that the universal schemes (e.g., mid-day meals and textbooks) perform better than targeted schemes (e.g. scholarships for girls). Though leakages persist, the mid-day meal scheme shows that they have largely been, and can further be, plugged. Similar transparency and awareness-raising measures need to be put in place for other school incentives.