Calcutta Notebook


Death of students aFter consuming mid-day meals is nothing new. Two children had died in Panipat in March. Corruption too is endemic. Eight truck loads of rice meant for mid-day meal were seized in Bulandshahr. These were being diverted to the black market. An evaluation by Delhi Government has found that mid-day meal was served less than 50 days instead of designated 200 days in one-fourth of the schools. One cannot expect it to be different. The intrinsic nature of Government servants is to be corrupt. Kautilya says it is as difficult to determine the amount embezzled by the government servants as it is to find out how much water the fish has drank in the pond. Programmes like mid-day meals provide yet another opportunity to the government servants to bleed the coffers of the government.

It would be better to give the students food vouchers with which the household can buy foodstuffs and provide tiffin to the students. But the Government thinks the people are fools. It is propagated that the households will sell the food vouchers in the grey market and use the money for buying liquor or mobile phones. Thus it is said that a programme like food Stamps which is successful in the United States would not be suitable for India. It is forgotten though that the money saved by the household by provision of meals in the school can also be diverted for mobile phones.

There is an apparent difference between food vouchers and mid-day meals. The food vouchers can be sold in the market while mid-day meals cannot be sold. But this distinction is artificial. As a child gets mid-day meal in the school, his family does not have to give him tiffin. The family saves money. This money can more easily be diverted for buying liquor than the voucher. The family has to go to the market to sell vouchers. It does not even have to go to the market to divert money that it saves from the provision of mid-day meals. It simply diverts the existing stream of income from tiffin to liquor.

The actual objective of schemes like mid-day meals is to keep the poor enmeshed in poverty perpetually while creating a facade of pro-poor policies. The salaries of teachers in Government schools are about five times that of private schools but results are about one-half. One reason for the poor performance of Government schools is that poorer students go to these schools. The environment at their home is not as conducive for studies as in middle class households. However, this disadvantage is compensated by better facilities and better paid teachers in Government schools. The actual reason for the poor performance of Government schools is lack of accountability. The pay packets of the teachers bear no connection whatsoever with the results. Teachers are more focused on their investments in the share markets or on making leakages from the mid-day meals than on teaching the students. Consequently parents do not want to send their wards to Government schools and enrollment is falling. This is putting the jobs of government teachers in jeopardy.

Government teachers rightly point out that poor results in Government schools are partly due to the teachers being saddled with additional responsibilities such as collection of census data. The problem is genuine. But this has to be seen in the overall context of Government schools having much better facilities. The teachers are brighter and better paid. Fact is that teachers in Government schools send their own children to private schools. They know that they do not teach.

The solution to this problem has been sought through mid-day meals. Poor households are tempted to put their children in government schools. Result is that a child who could have passed in private school gets enrolled in government school and fails. He remains uneducated perpetually.

The Government machinery is propagating that problems of mid-day meals are a consequence of bad management. It is being said that stricter monitoring by the parents would ensure the delivery, of good quality meals. This approach is self-contradictory. If the parents are so backward that they cannot be relied for purchasing food with vouchers, then how can one expect them to control the vagaries of Government servants?

The poor are so occupied with making their daily bread that they are less likely to spend time going to the school and seeking accountability. It is totally unnecessary to first create a ghost of the Government schools and then train people to tie the rope around its neck. It is simpler to simply kill the ghost.

Purpose of such antics is to deflect the attention from the fundamental malaise of the government schools and to ensure that the business of ensuring that poor students fail repeatedly continues unobstructed. Also, it is hoped that people will continue to cast votes in favour of the ruling party tempted by mid-day meals.

The entire proceeds of Value Added Tax are being used up in paying salaries to the government teachers in many states. The State Governments have little money left for investment in roads or libraries. The poor suffer a double whammy as a result. Their children fail in government schools and the adults remain poor because they cannot reach their produce to the city market.

This is not to deny that there are problems with voucher system even in a "developed" society such as the US. There is no social system that is perfect. It would be useful to make a study of the problems and work out ways to avoid them. This argument should not be stretched. The voucher system having problems does not mean that it should be dismissed as impracticable.

Vol. 46, No. 8, Sep 1-7, 2013

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