Poverty, Hunger and State Welfare – The Example of the Indian Mid-Day Meal Scheme

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Alva Bonaker.

Alva Bonaker is a member of the Max Weber Foundation Transnational Research Group “Poverty and Education in Modern India” and based at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Her PhD thesis investigates local perceptions of the Indian Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

photo: private

School Lunch (photo: private)

The nationwide Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) in India was introduced in 1995 with the objectives of enhancing school enrollment, retention and attendance while simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children. The government, moreover, claims that local communities, parents and teachers – especially those from disadvantaged groups – should be given an active role and the scheme should, hence, enhance social equality in classrooms and beyond.

This PhD research traces the question: How do parents, teachers and local communities understand the MDMS, and to what extend do they exert control over its effects? To finally arrive at answering this question, a crucial aspect, which this paper will engage with, is to understand the nature of the scheme within the broader context of state welfare interventions. How have hunger and poverty been understood, and how has this shaped particular social and governmental responses to them? Since the end of the 19th century after disastrous famines in Ireland and India, hunger was increasingly understood as a humanitarian problem and a failure of the government or international political economy (Vernon 2007). In recent times it seems, however, that the humanitarian response has gained most popularity and, as argued by Fassin (2012), governments consciously use the language of humanitarian reason to react to human suffering, but obscure the larger structural and legal systems and distributional politics that cause or maintain inequalities and suffering in society. Fassin points to the consequences of placing compassion over justice, thereby making people mere objects who receive humanitarian aid rather than active subjects.

We can observe the same mechanisms when looking at the reaction of the Indian government to the demand for a right to food. Under pressure from the Right to Food Campaign the government enacted a National Food Security Act in 2013, based on the National Food Security Bill (2011). This Bill has been highly critiqued for its weak interpretation of “entitlements” and “food security”, which give people a passive right to receive something rather than a positive right which they can actively claim. The shift to the provision of cooked meals under the MDMS was also a response of the government to the Right to Food Campaign. This might, hence, be seen as an attempt to draw positive attention to this popular scheme, demonstrating that the government recognizes its moral obligation to provide poor children with food, while refusing to acknowledge poverty and hunger as man-made problems and tackling its actual causes.

The nationwide Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) in India was introduced in 1995 with the objectives of enhancing school enrolment, retention and attendance while simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children. The government, moreover, claims that local communities, parents and teachers—especially those from disadvantaged groups—should be given an active role and the scheme should, hence, enhance social equality in classrooms and beyond.

This PhD research traces the question: How do students, parents, teachers and local communities understand the MDMS, and to what extend do they exert control over its effects? To finally arrive at answering this question, a crucial aspect, which this paper will engage with, is to understand the nature of the scheme within the broader context of state welfare interventions. How have hunger and poverty been understood, and how has this shaped particular social and governmental responses to them? I will reflect on the central debates in literature on this topic as well as try to connect these rather abstract thoughts with the concrete case of still persisting hunger in India, the governmental responses to the demand for a right to food and the introduction of the MDMS. For the later points I will not only use secondary literature, but also information I gathered during a first preparatory exploration of the field.

Regarding the overall topic of the winter academy, this contribution focuses not so much on education itself—despite, of cause, of the fact that the sites of the MDMS are schools and the connection of school education and nutritional support is a central aspect of the program—but in this presentation I will rather look at how inequalities, in terms of access to food, and social power are negotiated in this context.

Although this has not always been the case, today there is a general consensus that hunger and poverty are phenomena that need to be addressed by state intervention. According to Vernon (2007) the phenomenon of hunger came to be viewed and managed as a collective social problem only after the theories of Smith and Malthus—denying the responsibility of the state but seeing hunger as necessary to teach the moral duty of labor to the poor—had been replaced. Since the end of the 19th century after disastrous famines in Ireland and India, hunger was increasingly understood as a humanitarian problem and a failure of the government or international political economy (Vernon 2007). Emphasising the actual complexity of the topic, Vernon defines hunger as a cultural category as much as a material condition, which is not a result of pre-set (historic) conditions, but a category that has generated its own history: the struggle to define and regulate hunger produced its own networks of powers and understanding of the role of the government, for instance (Vernon 2007: 8). In recent times it seems, however, that these dimensions are pushed to the background while the focus on the humanitarian response has gained most popularity since, as argued by Fassin in the book “Humanitarian Reason: A Modern History of the Present” (2012), our attention has been drawn primarily to human suffering instead of the causes of the suffering. This has to do with new techniques of reporting bringing the victims of hunger closer to the audience through photographs and creating, hence, an ethical pressure (Vernon 2007). This is also reflected in governmental action, with governments consciously using the language of humanitarian reason to react to people’s suffering but obscure the larger structural and legal systems and distributional politics that cause or maintain inequalities and suffering in society. This trend becomes especially crucial when compassion replaces justice, thereby making people mere objects who receive humanitarian aid rather than active subjects, a phenomenon that Fassin demonstrates on many examples. He goes as far as talking of political exploitation of the moral sentiment for strategic interests. Governments use the language of moral sentiments and demonstrate their humanitarian action, for instance in the context of rescuing refugees in distress, while at the same time implementing policies—in this example rigid immigration laws—that increase social inequality.

We can observe similar mechanisms when looking at the reaction of the Indian government to the demand for a right to food. The Right to Food Campaign was initiated in 2001 as reaction to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to the Supreme Court by the Public Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which has become known as “Right to Food case”. In a time of severe droughts the petitioners demanded that the rotting food grain stocks of the country must be used to feed the poor. This petition referred to a “right to food” based on Article 21 of the Indian constitution which grants the fundamental right to life. (Bhasin 2013) While the case is still pending, a number of interim orders have been passed, among them the introduction of cooked meals under the MDMS, to which I will come later. Moreover, under pressure from the Right to Food Campaign the government formulated a National Food Security Bill in 2011, on the basis of which, without significant changes, a National Food Security Act was enacted in 2013. These documents have been highly critiqued. At the center of the critique is the weak interpretation of the terms “food security” and “entitlements”, which give people a passive right to receive food grains and meals on certain conditions rather than a positive right to access adequate food which they can actively claim (e.g. Bhasin 2013; Aggarwal & Mander 2013; Ramachandran 2014).

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines “food security” as follows: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/ess-fs/en/). In the National Food Security Act, in contrast, the definition is limited to “the supply of the entitled quantity of food grains and meal specific under chapter II” (Indian Parlament 2013). The phrase “right to food” is not used at all in the documents (Bhasin 2013).

Against the backdrop of these observations the commitment of the Indian government to actually grant a right to food to all people seems rather weak. Instead, the government seems to focus on programs trying to end the acute suffering of the hungry population. As mentioned above, long before the Food Security Act was drafted, in direct response to the “right to food case” in 2001 and the Right to Food Campaign, an interim order was passed on a whole range of nutritional programs. Amongst these was the shift to the provision of cooked meals under the MDMS. This might, hence, be seen as an attempt to draw positive attention to this popular scheme, demonstrating that the government recognizes its moral obligation to provide poor children with food, while refusing to acknowledge poverty and hunger as man-made problems and tackling the actual causes of these inequalities.

A massive promotion and popularity of the scheme can already be seen at times before it was introduced at the national level but already practiced in similar form as Noon Meal Scheme (NMS) in Tamil Nadu. This programme was introduced in 1982 by the state’s Chief Minister Ramachandran (a former film actor) who promoted it as his personal initiative of fighting the hunger of the poor which is tied to a narrative of his personal experience with hunger (Harriss-White 1991). Although this scheme is generally taken as positive example and seems to function better that in many other states of the country, Harriss-White (1991) who studied the NMS extensively, discovers many problematic aspects of it. A general point that she emphasizes is that a certain rhetoric and terms that are used in the context of the scheme do not seem suitable. Although she recognizes that labels are necessary for administrative purposes, Harriss-White argues that the labels, such as ‘beneficiary’  and  ‘participant’, used for those children who eat the food, are loaded, as, for example, “[p]articipation is the most ironic term to describe the role of harijan children, often fed separately, last and least.” (Harriss-White 1991: 7). She even argues that a “[…] particular set of labels serve the purpose of stressing its therapeutic aspects, diverting attention away  from the specifics of its implementation, vested in the inequitable local food economy.” (ibid: 87).

A specific rhetoric about being generous to help the poor and hungry through the MDMS while using the scheme in their own interests can not only be observed at the government level but also, for example, amongst NGOs. In many urban areas the food is not cooked in the schools itself but the procedure is centralized and contracts are given to NGOs who are responsible for preparing and distributing the food. This summer in Jaipur I had the chance to get some insights into the involvement of the Akshaya Patra foundation in the scheme. They are part of the Hare Krishna foundation which is active on international scale spreading their ideology of how to lead a good life in devotion of Krishna. Since 2000 Akshaya Patra is engaged in the MDMS and since 2004 they are active in Jaipur where they prepare the food for all schools that come under the program in the city in one kitchen that has a capacity to cook for 2 lakh children. Talking to a member of the organization I got the strong impression that even though I directly emphasized my primary interest in the aspect of the MDMS, his main aim was to convince me of the ideology of Hare Krishna. Through his presentation and videos that he showed me, it became clear that the engagement in the MDMS is the foundation’s show case of the ultimate devotion to help the poor and hungry which is portrayed as their main objective. In striking similarity to the above mentioned Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the story of how Akshaya Patra came to be involved in feeding school children also centers around the personal experience of the highly worshiped founder of the Hare Krishna foundation “Sri Srila Prabhupada” who is told to have seen are child suffering from hunger—an incident that moved his heart. Interestingly, in the information I got there is hardly any mentioning of the role of the government or existing policies (except when it comes to the official financial cooperation which is a public private partnership in Jaipur), but the foundation itself claims the whole program basically as their idea.

In Delhi, where I am planning to do my actual fieldwork later, the set-up is quite different since here eleven different NGOs are involved in the cooking in 13 kitchens. The Sri Shakti Foundation is the largest among them running three kitchens which serve 628 schools as well as three canteens of which one is the Delhi Secretariat canteen. The organization’s overall objective is women empowerment and, as far as I was told in a conversation with one of the managers of the canteens, most of the work in the canteens in done by women self-help groups. As this is not the case in their kitchens for the MDMS, a link to how these activities tie in with the overall aim of the organization and in what relation both sites are functioning is not yet clear to me, but the narrative of their motivation and interests in the schemes—as well as those of the other NGOs—seems to be highly interesting in order to understand the way how they present their engagement in social welfare activities and their perspectives on those who receive it.

Coming from the middle-level to those who are meant to benefit from the scheme, I turn to possible consequences of the preference of targeted welfare programs instead of fighting the bases of inequalities and injustice in the society. This, of cause, is directly linked to the general question whether the MDMS can be an adequate approach to counter hunger and inequalities in society (as officially claimed). I will not try to answer this question, but reflect on some aspects which suggest that the question is at least well justified.

While some see a potential of the MDMS to be a tool for social transformation—particularly in the aspect of children from different backgrounds eating together—others are highly skeptical of such claims. Harriss-White (1991), for example, observes a lot of caste discrimination in the Noon Meal Scheme of Tamil Nadu (during the eating as well as in the preparation and supervision processes) and comes to the conclusion: “The Noon Meal Scheme takes its specific form according to existing social relations. It is clearly not a capable vehicle by means of which to transform them.” (Harriss-White 1991: 73) Sridhar (2008), for instance, supports the assumption that the MDMS has not met social goals, as she finds the participation of Dalits in the program to be weak.

Apart from direct discrimination in the context of the scheme, in light of the above said, the whole nature of the scheme as a welfare program can be seen as putting those children who get the food in the position of receivers of governmental generosity which can be an uncomfortable position as well. As the relation between the donor and the receiver of any kind of aid is often problematic (e.g. Fassin 2012), an ambivalent affective relationship can be created between state welfare and those who receive it: people can dislike the class categories and discrimination which they face but at the same time see the benefits of the welfare measure they receive, for instance through food that is given in schools (Vernon 2010). Vernon even argues that the histories of welfare and discipline are closely intertwined. This has, according to him, also to do with the fact that welfare measures, such as collective feeding, were first introduced in institutions such as the workhouse, prisons, etc. and closely linked with the disciplinary systems that ruled these places.

How a strong notion of discipline and control can be part of a welfare program is described by Deshpande et al. (2014) in a rather extreme case. Analyzing the School Health Scheme (SHS) they observed that the students are frightened because they are treated in a very humiliating way during the health checks in class rooms. Despite such examples which portrait the children only as those who are being acted upon, it is not my aim to present the children and the people around them as passive objects. In his examination of the Integrated Child Development Services Program (ICDS) in India Gupta’s (2001) gives an example of how such programs are shaped by many factors and actors. He describes the introduction of state welfare programs in general as a new form of governmentatlity that extents the state’s control and regulation of the population, on the one hand. On the other hand, his examples of ambivalent relationships between officers, local health workers (anganwadis) and villagers as well as the resistance of those who are subject of surveillance demonstrate that the governmentality by the ICDS cannot be described as a linear process of protection, control and collection of data by the bureaucratic state. He, hence, argues that there are limits to the capacity of exerting control and surveillance on all levels. Governmentality, therefore, is to great extent influenced and shaped by the people involved and their own imagination and interpretation of their role (Gupta 2001).

It is exactly this tension between the governmental response to hunger, of which the MDMS is a part, and the understanding of the scheme by those who are meant to benefit from it as well as the extent to which they shape it, that is at the center of my research interest.

LITERATURE CITED

2013. National Food Security Bill. NFSB

Aggarwal A, Mander H. 2013. Abandoning the Right to Food. Economic and Political Weekly 48 (8):21–23.

Bhasin A. 2013. Between mass hunger and bursting granaries. Comment. The Hindu, May. 8:1–2. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/between-mass-hunger-and-bursting-granaries/article4693190.ece?css=print.

Gupta A. 2001. Governing Polulation. The Integrated Child Development Services Program in India. In States of imagination. Ethnographic explorations of the postcolonial state, ed. TB Hansen, F Stepputat, pp. 65–96. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Harriss-White B. 1991. Child nutrition and poverty in South India. Noon meals in Tamil Nadu. New Delhi: Concept Pub. Co.

Ramachandran N. 2014. Persisting undernutrition in India. Causes, consequences and possible solutions.

Sridhar DL. 2008. The battle against hunger. Choice, circumstance, and the World Bank. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Vernon J. 2007. Hunger. A modern history. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

Vernon J. 2010. Hunger, the Social, and State of Welfare in Modern Imperial Britain. Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 2:1–8. http://occasion.stanford.edu/node/43.


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