In the last revision effective from 1 April 2020, the per head cost of MDM was raised from Rs. 4.48 to 4.97 for Primary (average age from 5-9 or first to fifth standards) and from Rs. 6.71 to Rs 7.45 for Upper Primary (10-12 years or sixth to eighth standards). But even in the case of MDM it covers only the school going children from the first standard (Class I or age of 5/6 years) but not before. There have been consistent demands for formal inclusion of the Pre-Primary school system from 3 to 5/6 years and their coverage under the MDM Scheme but the Central and most State Governments are averse to the idea.
There have been numerous instances of primary students bringing their lower age siblings during the midday meal to share their food with them because wholesome food is not available at their homes particularly in rural India. It is however encouraging to note that under the altered name of MDM as ‘PM Poshan’ the pre-primary school children are also to be covered from the current financial year. It is however too early to comment on the actual coverage of pre-primary school children at this stage but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
According to the present norms under MDM (PM Poshan) food grains for primary classes (I to V) are to contain rice/atta 100 grams, pulses 20 grams, vegetables (leafy also) 50 grams, oil and fat 20 grams, and salt and condiments as needed per head per meal. It may be seen that the only source of protein in the above diet is 20 grams of pulse. Oil or fats as a cooking medium are hardly a source of protein as oil does not contain protein or carbohydrates and is also not a significant source of vitamins or minerals. Pulses are definitely helpful but mere 20 grams is but a poor substitute for milk, egg or lean meat in the daily diet of poor children who may not receive a substantial second meal a day.
Even half a portion of egg costing about Rs 2.50 can give immense benefit to the health of a growing child as it is not only a very good source of protein and vitamins (specially vitamins A and D) but is also rich in minerals, essential fatty acids and choline (which is very important for brain development and memory among the children). Instead of half portion of an egg per day which involves cutting and peeling of the outer shell it is even better to provide for a boiled egg on alternate days which may also save on fuel costs as the eggs may be boiled along with rice or pulses. The additional cost of Rs. 5 for an egg on alternate days or on 140 days out of 280 school days in a year to cover roughly about 20 crore school going children till upper primary level (Classes I to VIII) should not be a great financial burden.
As per the present scheme of sharing of costs 60 per cent of the total cost is to be borne by the Centre and the rest by the State Governments. By no stretch of imagination would the likely additional cost be beyond the financial resources of the Union and the State Governments especially when this may mean so much for the well-being of our future generations. But apart from ensuring at least one square meal a day it is equally important to keep track of physical and intellectual development of each of our growing children during the crucial ages between 3 and 16. While the MDM earlier covered children from primary to Upper Primary (classes I to VIII or age 5/6 to 12/13) it has now been decided to cover all children in Government/aided schools across the country from pre-primary (Nursery and KG) to Secondary (classes IX and X or age 14/15-15/16). Monitoring the physical and intellectual development of such a huge number of children across the country may be difficult but not insurmountable, particularly in this age of technology.
The basic measurements are height, weight and the Body Mass Index (BMI) or the height-weight ratio as per a universally accepted formula. These measurements can easily be done by schoolteachers with a little bit of training, supply of wooden/plastic height measuring scales and batteryoperated weighing machines which together may not cost more than Rs 500/ per school if purchased on a large scale. Later, development of muscular power by measurement of the upper arm and calf may also be added.
There are also lots of intellectual development measuring tools developed by WHO/ UNICEF and other agencies. These tools would cover conception about shapes and colours, ability to tell relationships and describe neighbourhoods in the lower classes to ability to speak, read and write and do simple mathematical calculations as they enter the primary classes. Thereafter half yearly independent assessment tests may be required. One important off shoot of such regular checking of these parameters is likely detection of disabilities in children at a very early stage and possibility of medical interventions, where required, to correct the problem.
Such monitoring of physical and mental developments of every child in India at half yearly gaps with required follow up action is likely to revolutionize the system of childcare in India. If possible, testing of eyesight can also be done by the teachers with necessary training. That may prevent full or partial loss of vision among early teens which is becoming a growing problem in India. This would immensely contribute towards genuine use of our so-called demographic advantage. There are of course immense logistical difficulties to implement such a scheme touching on the lives of our entire future citizens in such an inclusive manner. As stated before, conducting tests are only a part of the problem which can be tackled comparatively easily with the help of the schoolteachers from the pre-primary level to the Secondary stage.
The initial costs of providing each school with measuring tapes, correct height measuring instruments and weighing machines including maintenance and replacements to about 15.10 lakh government, aided or private schools across the country are daunting but not beyond fiscal reach. If we estimate the cost to be around Rs 2,000 per school including replacements, the total cost should be around Rs 300 crore. The training of teachers to undertake the tests should not pose much difficulty but for objective and unbiased checking, help may be sought from voluntary organizations or NGOs with focus on school education in their respective areas. Interchanging of teachers to avoid bias may also be considered.
Recording and uploading the data to a central server will pose another gigantic challenge. But with the progress of information technology and development of android phones, software tools and applications can be developed for recording the data and uploading to the server. Indeed, it can pose a challenge to India’s world reputed IT industry. Algorithms can be built under which the central server can analyse and point out the problem areas as well as show periodical improvements for stakeholders to act upon. Around 10 to 12 per cent children who study in private schools especially in urban areas, are not covered under the MDM/ PM Poshan. But as the data must cover the entire child population between the age of 3 and 16, enactment may be undertaken to support the scheme. Private schooling in India is still a dark area consisting of the best, average and the worst of conditions but attracts students from all the classes in society basically for their ‘English Medium’ tag.
Unfortunately, most of them make a serious drain on the resources of the parents. Monitoring physical and intellectual capacity building of students in such institutions is expected to throw some light in this otherwise dark area. Results of the general examination at the secondary level do not reveal the whole truth of the growing up of children in these private schools. But at the same time, we must be careful not to use this scheme to interfere with the system of pedagogy prevailing in these schools. It is time that we take regular and continuous stock of the growing up of our future manpower and protect them from the vagaries of birth and resultant discrimination. This may also help us to identify potential among our vast human resources to access the infinite vista of human endeavour.