The tragedy at Chhapra in Bihar that claimed the lives of 27 children from consumption of poisoned mid-day meals, apart from being an example of administrative failure, is a great opportunity to focus attention on the low-level equilibrium that public systems are entrapped in. I have blogged earlier about other instances of public systems caught in low-level equilibrium.
Consider the facts. The Mid day meal (MDM) program covers 120 million children in nearly 1.3 million schools and early childhood centers across the country. The government provides rice from the PDS and cash to cover the cost of other materials, including fuel. The Government of India (GoI) allocates 100 gms and 150 gms of rice for each primary and upper primary school child respectively. In addition, Rs 3.11 and Rs 4.65 per child is provided (being shared in the 75:25 ratio between GoI and state) to cover the cost of pulses, vegetables, oils, salt, condiments, and fuel.It has recently been raised to Rs 4.25 and Rs 5 respectively. The rice is drawn from PDS and the other items purchased locally. Some states supply pulses, oil, and even fuel (LPG cylinders) through the PDS fair price shop, while vegetables and ingredients are purchased locally. Each school has a kitchen shed and a cook-cum-helper for a school with upto 25 children, who is paid Rs 1000 per month (raised to Rs 1500 recently). For every 100 students, an additional helper is provided.
The program mandates that children of upper primary schools be provided 30 gms of pulses, 75 gms of vegetables, and 7.5 gms of oil. Even with the cheapest wholesale purchase of materials, it is impossible to provide MDM to these standards, anywhere in the country, even when done in massive scale. In addition the cost of transportation of materials, including for local purchases, is inadequate and rarely provided for. At a time when NREGS provides Rs 100-150 per day, it is very difficult to get people to work for even the increased amount of Rs 1500. The numerous other incidental expenses that come with managing such programs, especially in larger schools, have to be covered from the differential recovered by excess reporting. Not to speak of the problems associated with safe storage of provisions, water supply, and so on, all of which are sorely deficient in most schools across.
It is therefore obvious that it is not possible to deliver MDMs to the required standards with the prevailing allocation. The total unit cost of delivering mid-day meals of even barely acceptable quality is higher that that being allocated by the government. And it has been so for many years. The program though continues without much apparent discomfort, except for the occasional tragedies like the recent one. This equilibrium is underpinned by a rent-seeking chain which keeps all the major stakeholders satisfied.
Central to this is the manipulation of daily attendance reported from each school. Since the school claims MDM reimbursement based on the daily attendance, the incentives are aligned towards boosting attendance reports. It is therefore no surprise that school headmasters mis-report attendance figures extensively. They either show excess enrollment and/or report enrollment as attendance. It is common practice for schools to show the enrollment figure itself as the attendance for all the days of a school year.
The differential between the amount (and rice and other provisions) claimed (based on enrollment) and the actual attendance is used to cover the additional cost incurred as well as grease the palms of people all along the rent-seeking chain. The scale of evasion varies across schools. But, given the inadequate allocation, most schools indulge in some form of evasion. The governments, both at state and center, with limited fiscal space to provide additional resources, prefer to let things lie.
Permissive supervision maintains the equilibrium. It not only prevents school head masters and unions from revolting, but even keeps them happy. Such accounting manipulation inevitably attracts the interests of local political leaders and supervisory officials all along the state education bureaucracy.
Since more or less everyone indulges in some form of evasion, it becomes virtually impossible to effectively enforce the MDM rules. Occasionally when some enthusiastic supervisory official or district collector cracks the whip with effective enforcement, all these issues come out into the open. Unions and head masters will protest demanding reimbursement that covers the true cost of actually providing mid-day meals. But reimbursement to cover the true cost of providing MDM is a matter with nationwide implications. So after a few days things settle down back to business as usual. This gets repeated ad-nauseum across the country.
Even the honest and committed school administrators fall prey to this, left with no choice but to condone the practice of manipulating attendance figures so as to make ends meet. There are of course a handful of exceptional schools, where teachers have been resourceful and lucky enough to manage voluntary contributions from local people and elsewhere, and manage the program within the allocated budget. But that is no way to run a program for 120 million children.
Given the numbers of schools involved, their geographical spread, and the deficient (numerous vacancies) and over-burdened bureaucracy, effective monitoring of daily attendance is an extremely difficult task. Though there have been several initiatives to accurately capture attendance across the country, several last mile gaps have been deterrents to their effectiveness. Efforts to involve local Self Help Groups (SHGs) in managing the program and social audits of its implementation, while undoubtedly desirable, cannot gloss over fundamental inadequacies. Unless they are resolved, more children will continue to pay with their lives.