Although students from impoverished parts of India still face many challenges, a mid-day meal programme is helping to keep more kids in the school.
Poor Indian children, both in urban centres and rural areas, are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to education. For them, facilities are often dilapidated, equipment is lacking or out of date, and many teachers do not receive the training they need.
One recent step, however, has brought measurable signs of improvement. The number of poor children enrolled in school is on the rise, and analysts say much of the credit goes to a programme, which provides lunch to pupils.
"Mid-day meals have increased enrolments by 5% to 40% in various districts of West Bengal that we have surveyed," Kumar Rana, a researcher with the NGO Pratichi Trust, told Khabar South Asia. The Trust was founded by Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998.
The Mid-day Meal Scheme (MDMS) was launched in 2001 following a Supreme Court order, but most states began to implement it starting in 2005, when the central government initiated its Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All Mission) programme.
Since then, the impact has been striking, advocates say.
"Mid-day meals have increased primary school enrolments and also improve nutritional levels that affect learning abilities positively," said Delhi School of Economics Professor and education activist Jean Dreze, who along with Sen has long advocated the measure.
Anima Banerjee, 45, works as domestic helper in Kolkata, having left her family behind in the village.
"I could not afford to send my elder daughter to school. But my younger 10-year-old daughter goes to school," she told Khabar. "At least she gets to eat a proper lunch."
In the early years of the programme, Anima says, the mid-day meal was not so successful in the villages. The school handed out fixed quantities of rice each month to all enrolled students. But the children started attending school only on the days rations were doled out and worked in the fields for their livelihoods the rest of the month.
Now instead of the rationed rice, cooked meals help schools retain children in the classroom through the entire month.
According to local teachers, schools have had to search for creative solutions in administering the lunch programme because they lack adequate staff and infrastructure.
"We have to use one of the classrooms for cooking and also serve the food in the respective classrooms," Aleya Bandopadhyay, 55, headmistress of the Rishra Pyare Mohan Municipality Primary School, located northwest of Kolkata," she told Khabar, adding, " None of the local primary schools has the space for a separate lunch room."
"Preparing the children for the meals and cleaning up the rooms after the meals take up some teaching time," she said. Moreover, she added, maintaining accounts and invoices with no additional manpower is difficult.
Nevertheless, the mission is administered well and the funds pay for a nutritious meal for students, Bandopadhyay said. The funds come on time and are enough to provide a nutritious meal.
The lunches and higher enrolment numbers represent a bright spot in an educational sector, which analysts say is in urgent need of investment.
In particular, says National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights chair Shantha Sinha, India desperately needs more and better-trained teachers.
"There are 700,000 untrained teachers in the country, besides another 700,000 vacancies that need to be filled up," he said.
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