Two key problems relating to children in India are the large numbers of children out of school and the extent of undernourishment. In 2004, around 15 percent of children in the 6-14 age group did not attend school. According to the third national family health survey, carried out in 2006, 46 per cent of India’s children under 3 years of age were underweight (compared to 8 percent in China), and India was home to 57 million - or more than a third - of the world's 146 million undernourished children. Nutritional anaemia, too, was widespread.
The figures have serious implications for personal development and the productive potential of the nation and for Indian children’s basic human rights, such as access to food and education. The policy challenge, in this context, was to address both the educational and nutritional needs of school-age children.
Successive federal and state governments have taken various measures to increase school attendance, with some degree of success. One of the strategies has been the midday meals in schools initiative.
The objectives of the initiative include:
- Increasing the number of children enrolling in and attending school.
- Improving children’s nutrition.
- Promoting social equality in terms of gender and caste.
Providing midday meals in Indian schools has a long history, going back to 1923 in Madras. By the mid-1980s, three states had a universal cooked midday meal programme for primary schoolchildren. By 1991, nine more states had followed suit.
The National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education , a centrally sponsored scheme, popularly known as the midday meals in schools (MDMS) scheme was launched in August 1995. It has been updated since then, in 2003 and 2008, to include all schoolchildren in classes I–VIII in government, government-aided and local authority schools, as well as those in madrasas, in schools covered under the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) and in “alternative and innovative education” centres (AIEs).
The public impact
The scheme currently supports 113.6 million schoolchildren in about a million schools. There has been steady increase in the number of children covered under MDMS schemes across many states. For example, after the Supreme Court judgment of November of 2001, the number of children getting a hot cooked meal in schools in Rajasthan increased from 62.22 lakhs in 2001-02 to 76.76 lakhs in 2003-04.
A survey of 70 deprived villages in the state of Madhya Pradesh reported that:
- 90 percent of teachers and cooks said the meal was being regularly provided.
- 96 percent of parents wanted the scheme to continue.
- 63 percent of parents and 74 percent of teachers felt that the meal had helped improve the children’s learning abilities.
- There had been a 15 percent increase in overall enrolment.
- The scheme played an important role in reducing dropout rates, especially among girls.
The survey concluded that the MDMS scheme increased social equality by bringing children from different social groups together.
Stakeholder Engagement Good
MDMS was an initiative of central government, the major stakeholder. Other stakeholders were the state governments and the local authorities and schools which were responsible for carrying out the scheme. The central government implemented MDMS to cover all 29 states at a time (1991) when 12 states were carrying out such programmes out of their own: this makes its engagement clear. However, there is no information on how the remaining 17 states treated the scheme at the time of implementation.
Political Commitment Strong
The political commitment to MDMS has been strong from the very beginning. When the central government launched the scheme for the whole nation, it provided full support to the states through the free supply of the 100 grams of food grain along with subsidies for transporting it from the nearest Food Corporation of India distribution point. This was a huge fiscal commitment on part of the central government which definitely stems from strong political resolution.
The state government has had to bear the costs of infrastructure and the actual cooking.
Clear Objectives Good
The objectives of the scheme were clear from the outset. They have remained consistent, as is evident from amendments and revisions carried out by the governments to make MDMS more feasible and widespread.
However, as a caveat, the objectives are not in themselves backed up by quantitative measures and are quite generic. For example, the objective is to increase the nutritional level of children but the extent is not specified.
MDMS was inspired by a number of similar schemes:
- The one run by Madras in 1923.
- The 12 states that had been operating nutritional programmes from the 1980s onwards.
- One of the best known was the state of Tamil Nadu’s scheme which was started in 1982.
- By the mid-1980s, they had been followed by Kerala and Gujarat and subsequently by nine other.
There are risks that had to be taken into account, as is evident from the tragic story of the state of Bihar’s own midday meal scheme, which caused the deaths of 22 children. 
Feasibility, in terms of money and human resources, was properly evaluated by the government when it launched the scheme, estimating the requirement for each child of food grains, rice, pulses, oil. The states implementing the policy were given recommendations for sourcing finance. The implementing bodies were involved from the start, e.g., NGOs and charitable trusts.
There are formal monitoring committees, from national to school level, to ensure the progress of the scheme. At national level there are two committees that hold quarterly meeting to discuss the progress of MDMS. At state level, each state has an MDMS steering and monitoring committee to mirror the national level approach.
The outcomes of MDMS are measurable: the number of children getting hot cooked food, national progress in levels of nutrition, and the numbers of children being enrolled in schools.
In 2004, when the guidelines were revised after the nine years of MDMS, it became clear that universal implementation had not been observed. In six Indian states the scheme had not even started and, in many states, the quality of food was not meeting the required standards. There were also several schools that were without such midday meals in districts where the scheme has been formally launched.
When it comes to implementation, there have been complaints of delays in disbursement of funds to the implementing agencies at the field level from the state government. States had been complaining about the financial constraints but this issue was resolved in the 2006 revision of MDMS.
However, there are examples of successful implementation of the scheme as well. For example, a random survey conducted in 2003 in 27 villages of Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnatka found that in 76 out of 81 sample schools, meals were being regularly served and the scheme was being run in a satisfactory manner.