Samiksha Atul Devre can recollect the taste of the piping hot khichdi her school used to serve for lunch. But it gets a little fainter every day. The Class IV student has not been to the Zilla Parishad Primary School in Bharukheda village, Jalgaon district, Maharashtra, since it was shut on March 10 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The daughter of a small-time cotton farmer, Samiksha says one of the reasons she would go to school was the promise of a midday meal. “Someday, we were given khichdi, other days we had dal-rice or bhat-bhaji.” Coming from a family that faces severe financial hardship, she and her parents were happy that Samiksha was benefitting from the Mid Day Meal (MDM) Scheme, which promises a nutritional meal to children if they come to school. For poor families, the MDM Scheme is a great draw as it eases their burden on the nutrition front. However, the internationally acclaimed scheme hit a roadblock when the Centre on March 24 announced a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19. 77306259To ensure the children did not go hungry in the midst of large-scale disruption, Union Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank” later asked all states and Union territories to continue with the MDM Scheme, “as a one-time measure in the wake of Covid-19”. Though the Centre and states share the cost of the scheme, it is implemented by the states. During a virtual meeting with state education ministers on April 28, Pokhriyal said all the MDM beneficiaries should get their food in some form or the other during the summer vacation also. The options decided included delivering packaged meals to the children, giving an equivalent amount of foodgrain or depositing a food allowance directly into the bank accounts of their parents. Cooking cost is uniform across the country at Rs 4.97 for each primary student and Rs 7.45 for each upper primary student per day. States calculate how much money is to be disbursed depending on school days and what items the state is distributing to the beneficiaries. However, not all states have responded promptly in the effort to keep the stomachs of the children filled. 77306262Samiksha will testify to that. So will Jai Tadvi, a Class VII student residing in Vakod village in Jalgaon district. The promise of hot meals and the “chance to meet friends” encouraged him to make the 8 km one-way trip to school every day. “Some days I would bring the meal home in my tiffin box so that I can share it with my younger sister,” says the son of a farm labourer whose family of four lives on Rs 100-150 a day. The lockdown has dried up that income stream also, says his father Majid Tadvi. For such people, the MDM Scheme may well be the only source of food for at least a short while. Some 1.08 crore beneficiary-children in Maharashtra have not been able to get the benefits of the scheme since March. The state government claims to have provided foodgrain to rural schools for the two weeks ended March 31. On July 20, the state director of education closed a tender to buy pulses from contractors for MDM period April-June. Chana dal and split moong were bought at Rs 75.80 and Rs 101.85 a kg, respectively, when the state’s minimum support prices for the produce were Rs 48 and Rs 69.75. Director of Primary Education Dattatray Jagtap explained the reason for the higher prices: “The prices of pulses may be low today but may rise again tomorrow. These contractors have to supply the item throughout the year. Besides, they also have to bear some transport cost.” He, however, was less forthcoming on why the children were not being fed. “Now that the process has started, we should be able to supply ration in all the 86,000 schools within a week or so.” Maharashtra is not the only laggard among states in keeping the MDM Scheme running during the pandemic. Data gathered by ET Magazine showed that Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Tamil Nadu and Telangana had not taken any initiative till July 10. These states have some 3.5 crore children under MDM. Tamil Nadu also started giving foodgrain and pulses to beneficiaries in late July, just like UP. Some like Punjab distributed foodgrain and ration only during March 23-April 15. 77306275 77306286The better performers were Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttarakhand. Of these, MP, Uttarakhand, Odisha and Gujarat gave foodgrain and cooking cost, while Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka gave additional items such as cooking oil, soyabean and pulses in lieu of cooking cost apart from foodgrain. Andhra Pradesh is the only state that gave additional items such as eggs and chikki (a sweet made from nuts and jaggery or sugar) from its own resources. Rajasthan started the process of distributing meals or equivalent only on June 11. “We received the orders on June 10 and started distributing dry rations to parents for 94 days from June 11 itself,” says Deputy Commissioner in Department of Education Ashish Vyas, the nodal officer for MDM in the state. As on July 29, 82% of the beneficiaries have been given the rations. “We will now start transferring the cooking cost to the bank accounts of the parents.” Bihar transferred Rs 378.70 crore into the accounts of 1.29 crore government school students in April itself to cover the cost of foodgrain from March 14-31. But Sunil Pandey, a resident of Obara town in Aurangabad district, wasn’t sure how to withdraw the Rs 114 he got for his two children. Would the bank, which was 2 km away, be open during the lockdown and was the trip worth it given that there was a risk of catching infection? “Due to the fear factor, I did not go to withdraw the amount as it was too risky,” says Pandey. 77306544The state, which has 1.7 crore MDM beneficiaries, is now distributing 8 kg and 12 kg of rice per child for primary and upper primary segment, respectively. But parents or children must visit the school to collect the grain. Social distancing measures have been put in place. It is also giving Rs 397 to primary students and Rs 596 to upper primary students to cover cooking cost. In the national capital, too, money has been transferred for 11 and 20 days for upper primary and primary sections, respectively, in March. Education Department Adviser Shailendra Sharma says, “March dues were transferred in April and May. For April-June, the transfers started last week. 66% of eligible students have received the benefits for April-June.” Delhi government is giving Rs 5.22 a day for primary and Rs 7.83 a day for upper primary beneficiaries. 77306554Chhattisgarh’s initiative is worth emulating. In March, when the lockdown was being imposed, the state gave away ration for the first 40 days of the lockdown. Later it distributed rations for another 45 days. Some 29 lakh students across 43,000 schools received dry ration packets that had rice, oil, soyabean, pulses, salt and pickle. If parents could not go to the school to pick up the packets, self-help groups and school staff ensured home delivery. “The state government helped us a lot by delivering the foodgrain for my child to my home,” says Prakash Singh Sahu, 38, in Patan district, whose child studies in Class III. “I could not go out to even work. These are difficult days.” Gujarat streamlined the process by giving away ration coupons that eligible students can exchange for grains at public distribution system outlets. Uttar Pradesh — which has 1.9 crore children under MDM, the highest in the country — started distributing the benefits recently. Priya Rani, a Class V student at a government primary school in Bulandshahr district, has been going to school every week hoping she will get some food. She got lucky on July 23, when the school started giving away books and dry rations, including 11.6 kg of foodgrain. Teachers also promised her some money would be deposited into her father’s bank account soon to cover the cooking cost. The state is giving Rs 305 to primary and Rs 566 to upper primary beneficiaries as cooking cost. Government officials could not answer why children like Priya had to wait for 80 days after the HRD minister’s announcement to get rations. 77306587A headmistress of a school says, “The grant for MDM was transferred to the relevant account on June 14, and we started the distribution after that.” Uttar Pradesh Education Director Vijay Kiran Anand says they did not distribute the rations earlier because of the lockdown. “Most teachers were not available during the early days of the lockdown. We needed them to do a field survey to collect the bank accounts of parents. Calling some 10 lakh teachers to schools could have had serious repercussions then. We asked them to come in July. Now we have the account details and have started giving dry rations and the cooking cost for 76 days (school days from March-end to June).” However, children in UP have been lucky when compared with those in Goa and Telangana. These states have not taken any steps to feed the children.A senior official in Telangana education department says they are still awaiting directions from higher ups to start the process. But free rice has been provided to below poverty level families, they added. Another hurdle in MDM implementation that might become a bigger problem is that the cook-cum-helpers have not been paid from March. A senior HRD ministry official says, “We have sent reminders to all these states and asked for detailed reports on actions taken. Sadly, they haven’t responded.” 77306625Minister Pokhriyal says there isn’t much the Centre can do. “Implementation of MDM is the job of the state education department. We can only allot money and allocate foodgrain to states. We have increased the allotment during the lockdown period and have been asking states to provide dry rations or transfer money to the families on time.” With schools remaining shut till August 31 according to a new order, in a fresh letter dated July 31, the HRD ministry has advised states to complete the distribution of ration and cooking costs for the month of August by 10th of this month. As the lockdown disrupts life and livelihood, the midday meal scheme would come as a big help for poor families who want to keep their children fed, and in school. The least states can do is distribute the rations on time.