Context: The COVID-19 crisis has affected the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme, threatening the food security of children from underprivileged communities across the country.

More about news:

  • Children of one of the most marginalised Dalit communities in Bihar, the Musahars, have taken to rag-picking after the scheme was stopped. 
  • Taking suo motu cognisance of the matter, the Supreme Court asked states to ensure that “schemes for nutritional food for children are not adversely affected”. 
  • After being pushed by the National Human Rights Commission and the Patna High Court, the Bihar govt. has issued a statewide order to ensure distribution of rations to school children for three months and transfer of money to their bank accounts, or that of their guardians, in lieu of the food scheme. 

About Musahars

  • The Musahars (Rat eaters) live along the banks of River Gandak and its tributaries in the eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. 
  • Socially and economically, they are the most backward among the dalit community, and they face discrimination even at the hands of other dalits, who treat them as untouchables.
  • During the rice harvesting season, members of the community trap rats from the fields. Rats form a staple diet for them during this time. 
  • Rest of the year their food consists of fish, snails and cockroaches.

Food security concerns due to pandemic:

  • Large scale malnourishment: The SC alerted state governments at an early stage of the pandemic: “Non-supply of nutritional food to the children as well as lactating and nursing mothers may lead to large-scale malnourishment, particularly in rural and tribal areas.” 
  • Ineffective dry rations: Most states, including Bihar, have substituted MDM with dry rations. 
    • The child health experts have questioned the efficacy of dry rations as a substitute for cooked meals. 
    • Research work has shown how hot, cooked food attracted students to schools and improved their nutritional status. 
  • Unavailable manpower: With schools closed and anganwadi workers engaged in COVID surveillance work, there is a real danger that the nutrition of such children could be compromised.

Way forward:

  • The pandemic has led to widespread economic distress. In such times, the need to strengthen food security programmes cannot be overstated. 
    • The states have much to learn from Kerala, which ensured that the MDM scheme remained operational during the pandemic. 
  • Preventing another crisis: States should also heed the SC’s warning: “While dealing with one crisis, the situation may not lead to creation of another crisis.”

About Mid Day Meal Scheme

  • Tamil Nadu was the first state to introduce the MDM scheme in the 1960s. 
  • With a view to enhancing enrolment, retention and attendance and simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children, the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NSPE) was launched as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme on 15th August 1995.
  • However, initially, most states got away by providing dry rations. 
  • In 2001, the Supreme Court ordered all states to introduce cooked meals. It also specified that the meals should provide children with “at least 300 calories and 8-12 grams of protein each day of school for a minimum of 200 days in a year”. 
  • In 2001 MDMS became a cooked Mid Day Meal Scheme under which every child in every Government and Government aided primary school was to be served a prepared Mid Day Meal.
  • The Scheme was further extended in 2002 to cover not only children studying in Government, Government aided and local body schools, but also children studying in Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) and Alternative & Innovative Education (AIE) centres.
  • A provision for serving mid day meals during summer vacation in drought affected areas was also made.
  • The nutritional norm was revised to 450 Calories and 12 gram of protein. 
  • In October 2007, the Scheme was extended to cover children of upper primary classes (i.e. class VI to VIII) studying in 3,479 Educationally Backwards Blocks (EBBs).
  • The nutritional norm for upper primary stage was fixed at 700 Calories and 20 grams of protein. 
  • The Scheme was further revised in April 2008 to extend the scheme to recognized as well as unrecognized Madrasa / Maqtabs supported under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan .