New Delhi: The Union Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman (PM POSHAN), a modified version of the existing National Scheme for Mid-Day Meal in Schools (MDM) on 29 September, 2021. The MDM scheme is a centrally sponsored scheme under which the government provides one hot cooked meal to all children studying in classes 1 to 8 in government and government-aided schools.
The Central government has announced a total budget of 1,30,794.90 crore rupees for PM POSHAN, which will be shared between the centre and the states. The scheme will operate for a period of five years between 2021-22 to 2025-26. The centre and state governments will continue to share a 60:40 split in the expenses incurred for the implementation of the scheme with a financial outlay of 54061.73 crore rupees from the central government, and 31,733.17 crore rupees from state governments and union territory administrations. The centre will also bear an additional cost of 45,000 crore rupees on food grains.
Under the new scheme, the government has proposed to extend its coverage to students studying in pre-primary or ‘Bal Vatikas’ of government and government-aided primary schools along with the existing 11.80 crore beneficiaries. It has also announced that special provisions will be made for providing supplementary nutrition to children living in districts with a high prevalence of anaemia.
The government has announced “Tithi Bhojan” where children will be provided with ‘special food made by people on special occasions/festivals’.
It proposes to involve Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) and Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in the implementation of the scheme under Atma Nirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) in an attempt to stimulate local economic growth through use of locally grown traditional food items. It also plans to set up School Nutrition Gardens with a view to use the harvest to provide ‘additional micro-nutrients’.
District-wise social audits have been made mandatory under the scheme for greater accountability. University students and trainee teachers of Regional Institutes of Educations (RIE) and District Institutes of Education and Training (DIET) will monitor the progress made under the scheme on field visits.
One of the major objectives of the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nourishment (POSHAN Abhiyaan), launched in 2018, was to eradicate malnutrition by 2022.
The scheme however does not promise anything new. In fact, a comparison of the budgetary allocations over the years show that the scheme has faced major budget cuts. The 2021 allocation for the scheme has seen a 38% reduction since 2014, after factoring in inflation.
RoadScholarz, a group of students and volunteers who conduct action-oriented research, shared an analysis on the budget cuts under MDM since 2014, which showed that the funding from the scheme has been reduced from 13,215 crore rupees in 2014 to 11,500 crore rupees in 2021.
The central government’s allocation under PM POSHAN across 5 years (54,061 crore rupees), proposes an expenditure of 10,812 crore rupees per year. This is lower than the 2021-22 allocation.
Hunger and Malnutrition in India
According to data from National Family Health Survey (NFSH-4) the prevalence of stunted, wasted, and underweight children in India under 5 was 38.4%, 21% and 35.8% respectively.
Data from the NFSH-5 shows a rise in malnutrition. From the 22 states, for which findings have been released, 13 have recorded an increase in the prevalence of stunting among children under the age of 5, and 12 have recorded an increase in wasting.
The under-5 and infant mortality rates have seen a decrease in 18 states and union territories. However, 16 states have recorded an increase in underweight and severely wasted under-5 children.
The findings from Hunger Watch, a survey of 4000 people from marginalised communities across 11 states led by the Right to Food Campaign, show that over two-thirds were eating nutritionally worse and less food in September and October, 2020, compared to the pre-lockdown period.
Meanwhile, the disruption of these welfare and food schemes due to the lockdown has exacerbated the situation causing a hunger pandemic.
Budget Cuts Amidst A Raging Pandemic
The State of Food and Nutrition in the World 2021 estimated that between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020. The report also estimated that 22% (149.2 million) of children under 5 years of age were affected by stunting and 6.7% (45.4 million) were wasted. The report states that the actual figures are expected to be higher due to the pandemic.
Even as COVID-19 continued to wreak havoc, the centre slashed budgetary allocations for various government schemes that directly impact nutrition in the Union Budget 2021. These include the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), midday meals, and maternity entitlements.
The budgetary allocation for the mid-day meal scheme was reduced by 10.8 per cent in comparison to the revised estimates of 2020-21. The budget estimate was revised from 11,000 crore rupees to 12,900 rupees. However, the budget allocated for the scheme in the financial year 2021-22 is 1,400 crore rupees less than the estimate – 11,500 crore rupees.
Dipa Sinha, an activist with the Right to Food Campaign, believes that the government has just repackaged the old scheme.
“Nothing new has been offered; neither in terms of the budget, nor its coverage. The new beneficiaries they’ve added already receive meals under ICDS. Children in the age group of 6 months to 6 years are entitled to receive free meals from the local Anganwadi centers under the National Food Security Act (NFSA)”, Sinha told Behanbox.
Earlier this year, the NEP 2020 had proposed to supplement the mid-day meal scheme with a breakfast scheme, taking into account emerging research on the importance of breakfast in improving learning outcomes. The proposal was rejected by the Union Ministry of Finance stating paucity of funds.
“There are multiple concrete proposals for improving the quality of the mid-day meal– one of which the Ministry of Education had proposed under the National Education Policy (NEP) – the provision of a breakfast meal. So, they could have added breakfast to the scheme, or even included an egg or milk to the meal,” she added.