By Prof Indira Hirway*
Perhaps not many people noticed on 28th February, 2017 a notification of the Ministry of Human Resource Development which announced that Mid-Day Meal (MDM) now will be linked with Aadhar Card. That is, no child in government schools (std 1-8) will be given mid-day meal unless he/she produces an Aadhar card or he/she produces an Aadhar enrolment or his/her guardians take an undertaking that the child is not availing benefited of a full meal at any other school!
Nothing could be more unnecessary or even more inhuman than this order! Denying a free meal to a child for any reason is something not acceptable in a country where half the children are malnourished! In India 72% of our children are anaemic, 57% children are Vitamin A deficient, 45% are stunted and 44% are underweight! If a child ‘not entitled’ eats a free meal or two, sky is not going to fall on the government! If a ‘’’hungry child eats twice, the government should be happy about it!
The MDM was introduced in India in the 1980s and was universalized in 2007. It is not a done – a charity but it is a right of school children. Today about 10.3 crore children studying in standards 1-8 in government schools eat this free meal. The objectives of the scheme are multiple – it attracts children to school and helps in retaining them in school, it improves their nutrition levels and health, it improves learning capacity of children and also reduces the burden of work of women who are already overburdened. Frequently, when younger siblings of the school going children also eat this meal, it is also positive gain!
Legally speaking, this notification is against the provisions of the Right to Education Act 2008 and the National Food Security Act 2013. It is also against the Supreme Court orders which made a hot nutritious meal an entitlement of children in 2001. It also violates the Supreme Court orders on Aadhar which clearly stated that Aadhar cannot be made compulsory for any service.
After all, who are these children who eat free meal-day meals? They are mostly from weaker sections, Dalits and minorities, frequently from slums and Bastis or from poor localities.
As it is there are still several unresolved problems pertaining to the MDM that need urgent attention of policy makers. For example, there are complaints about the nutrition content of these meals; giving an egg or so in the meals, issues pertaining to giving locally acceptable food; raising the per child funds, providing regular fund flows to schools so that there are no breaks in meals, and removing caste discrimination while serving the meals. Instead of working on these problems, the government is wasting their time, energy and funds on unnecessary issues!
It is understandable if Aadhar is linked with pensions or wages to MGNREGA workers, because there is a possibility of leakage there. What is a leakage here – a hungry child eating a free meal?
If it is a question of costs, governments must realize that in spite of huge malnutrition of women and children in India the government has failed miserably in spending even 3% of GDP on health – which is the established norm! This percentage is around 1.00 to 1.5 now! They can surely raise this expenditure to meet the norms!
If it is overenthusiasm of the government to link everything with Aadhar, this particular linkage is most unnecessary! If the government wants to shift to cash transfer instead of giving free meals in the school, the purpose of the scheme would be totally lost! And if the government is aiming to bring all information under their surveillance, it is an issue related to violence of the privacy of people. However, this is not the right step at this moment, as a 5-judge committee of the Supreme Court is expected to be constituted to deal with the pending cases of privacy!
Let the government not waste energy and time on such unnecessary issues. The government should instead work on how this meal can be more nutritious, and how its administration can be made more efficient!
*Director and Professor of Economics at Center for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad
- Note: Facing opposition fury, the Government of India has said that “benefits will continue without Aadhar card”. However, as has been reported, crux of the notification remains intact: Till an Aadhaar number is assigned to a person, the benefits will continue based on alternate means of identification.