Midday meals for schoolchildren in India: More good than harm

On July 16th at least 23 children in the Indian state of Bihar died after eating a midday meal that was provided for free by their school. Nearly as many are in critical condition in a local hospital. Tests have revealed that adulterated cooking oil, perhaps containing pesticides, is likely to blame. A government inquiry has determined that the principal of the school, who is in hiding, must be held responsible for the bad ingredients or unsafe methods used in preparing these meals.

This event is horrific, without a doubt. Yet its damage could be even worse, if it raises too many doubts about the value of a largely successful programme. The midday-meal scheme, which began on a small scale decades earlier, received the support of India’s Supreme Court in 2001. Since then most Indian states have adopted it, offering free meals to children in state-run or state-assisted schools. More than 120m children, including many who would otherwise go hungry, receive these meals every school day.

According to a recent analysis by Farzana Afridi of Syracuse University and the Delhi School of Economics, at a cost of three cents per child per school day, the scheme “reduced the daily protein deficiency of a primary-school student by 100%, the calorie deficiency by almost 30% and the daily iron deficiency by nearly 10%.” Ms Afridi also found that, after controlling for all other factors, the meals scheme has boosted the school attendance of girls by 12%. Abhijeet Singh of Oxford University found that, in some parts of India where children were born during a drought, the health of those who had been brought into the meals scheme before the age of six was compensated for earlier nutritional deficits.

What the disaster in Bihar has done, at the very least, is to highlight some of the pitfalls of the scheme. As with any programme of this size in a country rife with corruption, the meals scheme is riddled with problems. The corruptible state is not alone in funding the programme; it is joined by private companies and NGOs. Corruption exists not just among state entities but among the supporting agencies too, as was demonstrated in 2006 when a Delhi NGO was caught dipping into rice that was meant for midday meals. In the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the levels of malnutrition are among the highest in the country, it was found that only three-fourths of the food meant for children reached them. Food is often stolen by the administrators’ faking their students’ attendance. Beyond that, reports of adulteration—not only with shoddy or unsafe foodstuffs, but including finding worms, lizards and snakes—are common.

Next month, the Indian government will be voting on a food security bill which aims to provide food to 60% of the entire population, by means of a public distribution system. This one school’s tragedy comes at an especially crucial moment, when officials ought to be forced to inspect the leaky pipeline of distribution. At the same time it will be important to bear in mind: This scheme has done a lot more good than harm.

First published on economist.com.

Image credit: GlobalPartnership for Education

This tablet is not the magic pill

The Indian government needs to open its eyes and realise that the technological utopia it envisions in the low-cost tablet is no cure for poor education, poverty or inequality

The last few days have brought the Aakash tablet back into the media limelight. Last Friday, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister M.M. Pallam Raju said that troubles with the manufacturer could doom the project. But the next day, former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who started the project, denied Mr. Raju’s comments. He further added: “I want public services to be delivered through Aakash. I want Aakash to be a platform for 1.2 billion people.”

Before Mr. Sibal sets more ridiculous targets and spends taxpayers’ money on them, he needs to be stopped. His fanciful ideas are wrong. First, there is no evidence that a tablet can solve any of the problems that he claims it can. Second, it is not clear how the Indian government will ever be able to produce (or procure) a tablet that costs less than $35.

Root of the idea

The idea for the Aakash tablet and troubles that the project brings with it have both been inherited from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OLPC’s hope was that empowering children in the developing world with computers connected to the internet will help them learn faster, develop better skills and reach their full potential.

But there were problems with the idea right from the start. First, it hadn’t been tested on a large enough population to make a reasonable cost-benefit analysis. Second, the project claimed that scaling up production will reduce the cost of each laptop below Rs.5,400 ($100), though they weren’t sure how. Third, OLPC thought better education was the panacea to all problems irrespective of a country’s needs.

Despite these issues, OLPC received backing from the United Nations Development Programme in 2006. With this stamp of approval, its large-scale implementation began. About eight years after its launch, the results are in and OLPC hasn’t done so well.

Tested in Peru

Peru was the site of the largest experiment. More than 8,50,000 laptops were given out at a cost of Rs.1080 crore ($200 million). In treatment schools where the number of laptops per child was increased from 0.12 to 1.18, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank found that OLPC failed in its goals. Test scores in languages and maths remain dismal. Enrolment isn’t higher than what it was before.

A 2010 study in Romania, another middle-income country, found that those children who were given laptops were, not surprisingly, more proficient in its use. But they did not score anymore in exams than those who didn’t have computers. Even in a low-income country like Nepal, a small-scale study produced the same results. Furthermore, the price of each laptop, up until 2010, remained at more than Rs.10,000 ($200).

More than 20 lakh laptops have been handed out so far. Berk Ozler, senior economist at the World Bank, argues that OLPC is a mess. A report by Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames of the University of California Irvine, says: “Unlike Negroponte’s approach of simply handing computers to children and walking away, there needs to be integrated education improvement efforts.” It is not clear how governments all around the world fell for the scheme that is backed by little evidence.

OLPC’s latest victim is India, even though Aakash is not a laptop. Mr. Sibal, like Negroponte, considers Aakash to be the panacea to all problems. It’s not just that. Mr. Sibal also wants Aakash to be the cheapest tablet. This has proved to be a major hurdle. Datawind, a Canadian company, won the tender to provide tablets at a cost of less than $35. Its first version failed miserably because of poor hardware. The newer version seemed more promising, but it looks like Datawind will default on its promise to deliver 1,00,000 units by March 31.

Even if the government somehow, however difficult it may seem, is able to get access to cheap tablets, they are not going to help achieve its aims. Can a laptop overcome the negative impact of a bad teacher or poor school? Can it make children smarter despite the lack of electricity, water, toilets or playgrounds? Can it overcome the limitations of stunted growth among the malnourished? Can Aakash increase productivity of the workforce to counterbalance the money invested in it?

There is no evidence that it can do any of these things. And yet, the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology “strongly hinges around a low-cost device through which the content created can reach the learner.” This adoption of OLPC’s main idea is fraught with problems. Warschauer and Ames rightly argue that handing out laptops, or in India’s case, tablets, ignores the local context and thus avoids solving any of the targeted problems.

Right now when government officials are themselves confused over the future of Aakash, it is important to step back and analyse the reasons for pressing forward with a hopeless idea. Without concrete evidence, it would be foolish to continue.

This is a referenced version of an Op-Ed that was first published in The Hindu.
Image credit: The Hindu

Ground Reality

Last month I attended the Oxford Indian Society’s annual lecture which was delivered by Lord Chris Patten, the chancellor of the University of Oxford. It was titled, “India and the changing world order”. It was indeed an honour listening to Lord Patten and more so because he had praises to bestow upon India. Like Shashi Tharoor, he spoke of the soft power, that India is wielding over the world currently and how it will affect the twenty-first century. He spoke of the role of the Indian diaspora and the effect that it is having on the western world. In their respective talks, they spent 90% of their time on talking about the great things in India and the rest about the difficulties. Listening to all this progress, the speakers painted a very rosy picture of my own country giving me tremendous hope.

And then after 15 months in England, I came to India for my vacation. May be for a short while, but I have become the common man that I was 15 months ago. The fog created by that rosy picture cleared up as soon as I landed and got a taste of the ground reality. The evils of living in India showed their face one by one: filth, poverty, lack of infrastructure and general chaotic existence. And they showed up in times when you would least want to see them. I will elaborate.

After an amazing new year’s eve, we decided we should watch the sunrise on the first day of 2010. We reached this beautiful scenic place in Nasik  which had a road in the middle of a small lake and we could watch the sun rise out of the mountains. We stood there in the dark waiting for the first rays of light. The sunrise was indeed beautiful but the first few rays of light exposed the piles of filth we were standing on. We left within a few minutes of the sunrise. So much for cleanliness!

The next thing to hit me was the inflation. Mostly in food prices, the changed rate-cards of restaurants in Mumbai and Nasik made that evident. I wondered how the poor must’ve kept up with the rising prices of everyday things. Specially because this time the difference was very significant. The slums I knew still exist and have even increased in size. So much to curb poverty!

Then of course, there was this “world bank project” that was going on in Nasik. They were laying HUGE drainage pipes. Reasons? The city has outgrown the size of the drainage pipes that exist and if it floods then the city could be in trouble. Fair enough. Now, for this purpose they have dug up half of every good road in Nasik and sources say that the money from th grant was only for laying the pipes not rebuilding the roads. So much for the infrastructure!

To top it all, we spent an evening discussing crime and corruption in my hometown. A relative of mine was a victim and his story was was painful one to listen to. So hard to imagine how difficult it might have been to face it. We spoke of how easily people can get away after serious offenses, of people who take bribes openly and then open an educational institute, of able people being replaced by ones who can pay a higher price for the position. We discussed the inefficiency of the public sector corporations like BSNL. Not just that, a few days before I spent 4 hours to change my broadband scheme but to no avail.

In all this time away from home I don’t think the agony of the common man has decreased much. The ground reality of things is very different from the rosy picture painted by the media.