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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.

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