Utilising the services of women from low-income families to cook food has widened the beneficial aspect of the mid-day meal scheme in schools. Amar Chandel takes a look at the path-breaking “Jahangirpuri Model” RAJNI THAKUR, Bimla Devi, Bharati Saha and Ram Devi have many things in common. All of them are from the poorest strata of society, are widows and are the sole breadwinners for their families. NOVEL PROJECT: Women from economically weaker sections make puris for a Monday “special” under the mid-day meal project Photos by the writer SWEET SUCCESS: As much as 60 quintals of food is prepared everyday for 20,000 children in schools in the Chandigarh area Success of the “Jahangirpuri Model” can lead to its replication all over India They are among the 40 women employed by Swami Sivananda Memorial Institute (SSMI) to cook mid-day meals for more than 20,000 schoolchildren of Chandigarh. The "Jahangirpuri Model" of "Women Empowerment for Child Welfare" used by the institute is changing the ground rules of feeding children. The model, if implemented judiciously, can be a panacea for the whole country. The mid-day meal scheme is the world’s largest child-feeding programme. The Ministry of Human Resource Development spends about Rs 7,000 crore annually for feeding school-going children and the Ministry of Women and Child Development spends another Rs 5,000 crore to provide nutrition supplements to pre-school children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. This involves serving as many as 12 crore children enrolled in 9.5 lakh primary schools and 2.5 crore pre-school children served by 7.5 lakh functional anganwadis. Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has praised the mid-day meal scheme being implemented in the country’s primary schools. "I think it is a terrific way of enhancing nutrition among children," he said after the release of a report on The Future of Mid-Day Meals prepared by the Centre for Development Economics at the Delhi School of Economics. "Schooling can be a major possibility of nourishment and the food reaches exactly where you want it to reach." After the attempt to thrust the responsibility of cooking food on the school staff itself proved a resounding failure (after all, cooking is a specialised job that teachers or other school staff just cannot undertake) the responsibility was handed over to organisations that had the experience to do the task day in and day out. This was in keeping with the October 7, 2004, order of the Supreme Court which had ordained: "Contractors shall not be used for supply of nutrition in anganwadis and preferably ICDS funds shall be spent by making use of village communities, self-help groups and Mahila Mandals for buying of grains and preparation of meals". In Chandigarh, this responsibility was given to Hotel Shivalik View and Dr Ambedkar Institute of Hotel Management. According to the website of the Chandigarh Administration, the Chandigarh Administration has introduced ready-to-eat food/cooked meals under the mid-day meal scheme. Cooked meal in the form of chapatti-based menu costing Rs 8 per child per day and rice-based menu costing Rs 6.14 per child day includes dal and sabzi. Meanwhile, in Delhi the SSMI had set up two kitchens in 25 sq yard windowless houses in slums. These were operated by neighbourhood women and catered to about 7,000 beneficiaries producing 840 kg of pulav or dalia per shift from five vessels, each producing 168 kg of food at a time. The remarkable thing about the "garib ki joru garib ke bachche ko khilaye" (poor man’s wife to feed poor man’s children) scheme was that despite coming from the deprived sections, these women learnt and adapted hygiene and quality control measures very effectively. As many as 25 women were employed and 34 families had direct income from the project. Since the total capital investment was less than Rs 3 lakh, the capital invested per employee was only Rs 10,000. Still, it maximised women’s employment, ensured the economy of scale and reduced the distance to which the food was transported. It addressed ecological considerations by avoiding smoke as the food was not cooked using firefood, coal and uplas. Thus the "Jahangirpuri Model" was born. It was based on three principles: locate the kitchen in the midst of beneficiaries in order to maximise efficiency; maximise women’s employment and ensure food and employee safety. On the advice of the Planning Commission, on June 1, 2007, the Chandigarh Administration sent a delegation from the DPI, Chandigarh, led by Ms Kamala Bains to visit the SSMI and the kitchen being run by it in Jahangirpuri. One year later, on June 12, 2008, the Chandigarh Administration allotted kitchen space in Government Model Senior School, Sector 47-D, to the SSMI. The "Jahangirpuri Model" was replicated in Chandigarh by hiring 40 women from the lower income category from Colony No. 5, Burail, Faida and Ram Darbar etc to run the kitchen. On July 4, 2008, the SSMI started serving mid-day meals at a ridiculously low price of Rs 2.50 per meal. The rate was revised to Rs 3.33 in July 2009. Foodgrain at the rate of 100 grams per child per school day is provided under the central assistance by the Government of India through the FCI. The volumes are very large. All over India, the FCI supplies grains for about 150 million children. The volume is so large that the foodgrains are neither uniformly good nor uniformly bad. The quality varies. Other than foodgrains (wheat and rice), everything else has to be provided by the agency cooking the food. It includes the cost of ingredients, e.g. pulses, vegetables, cooking oil and condiments; fuel and wages/ remuneration payable to personnel; cooking devices (stove, chulha, etc) and utensils for delivering food to the schools. K. Ashok Rao, the general secretary of the SSMI, recalls that the concept of the "Jahangirpuri Model" was so novel that everyone warned him that by depending entirely on slum women as the work force, he would face at least three insurmountable problems — theft, clashes between the women and absenteeism with new excuses daily for not coming to the kitchen. But none of this has happened and the workers have shown grit and determination. Since the food cooked is also consumed by their own children studying in various schools, they work with a commitment. Rao adds, "Now we have to work on ensuring high standards of hygiene and quality. And that is the challenge." What is noteworthy is that the women in Chandigarh were trained by women from Jahangirpuri. "We did not bring any professional trainers or home science graduates but four women from Jahangirpuri, who stayed in the community centre in Sector 47-D and taught the craft to their counterparts". Everyday, they prepare 60 quintals of food, which is supplied to 20,000 children at 300 gm per child. A food inspector of the administration is on hand for quality control. The kitchen is managed by Parmesh Parida, who is technically assisted by Debabrata Patra, M Sc in Food Technology from CFTRI (Mysore). According to Sunita Bhasin, Director, SSMI, "When 40 women from the low-income families living in the slums are employed to work from 4 am or earlier there is a need for gender sensitivity. It must be understood that after hours of physically stressful work, starting at wee hours, these women have to go back to very uncomfortable living conditions. And unlike men, they have housework staring at them. We have tried to mitigate this by providing free transport from home to the kitchen and encouraging them to take the leftovers after cooking 6,000 kg of food. This gives them some relief and thereby reduces stress and absenteeism. "Also we have formed them into self-help groups to encourage them to do savings and develop a team spirit. It is also important to involve them in decision-making, because everyone — from their family to the larger society — takes them for granted. The results are amazing." Earlier, dry rations like roasted grams, puffed rice and a variety of processed foods were being served. However, the programmes were mired in corruption, resulting in the intervention of the Supreme Court, which ordered hot cooked meals for schoolchildren. On Independence Day this year, the SSMI has launched "Operation Mahila Garv" under which it will make every effort to implement good hygiene practices (GHP) and good manufacturing practices (GMP) and work towards ISO certification for the decentralised kitchens run by women from low-income families organised in self-help groups. Ms Bhasin says, "Once these two models, in Delhi under the ICDS and in Chandigarh under mid-day meals, are successful and have quality certification, the SSMI would be an advocacy, consultancy and training institution to ensure and enable replication of the ‘Jahangirpuri Model’ all over India". NGOs providing cooked food for mid-day meals or ICDS on a small scale lament that self-help groups or cooperatives of women or village panchayat are not recognised as micro, small and medium enterprises, whereas those that produce soap, shoes or even processed food like papads and achars are considered an enterprise. If women and village panchayats are to be encouraged as service providers then there is a need for institutional arrangements for credit and training. Agencies that provide cooked food vary from state to state. With rare exceptions, most of the NGOs are, in fact, commercial enterprises. There are also religious organisations like ISKCON (Akshaya Patra) and Nandi Foundation, floated by big corporates like Dr. Reddy’s Lab that are doing business worth about Rs. 40-50 crore per annum in mid-day meal scheme in various states. The centralised kitchens are semi-mechanical; they minimise human intervention and have a very controlled safe environment to work in. Prabha Kumathe, a consultant food technologist, says, "The problem with centralised kitchens is that since they cover large geographical areas, given the traffic conditions in urban areas, the time between production and consumption of food goes beyond 10 hours. In a hot, humid country there is a danger of food-borne illnesses occurring due to bacterial activity during these long hours. A balance has to be struck in determining the size of the kitchens on the principle of minimising the time between food processing and consumption." According to newspaper reports, the Ministry for Women and Child Development and some MPs are lobbying for biscuits being served instead of the cooked food to schoolchildren. Whether biscuits would indeed be a better option is open to question. There is also a move to bring in large companies and multinationals to cook food in capital intensive mechanised kitchens. But that will block the way of using the meal scheme as a means for creating low-skilled employment for women from low-income families and make the way for commercial establishments.