It has now been over a year since India recorded its first positive case of COVID-19. In this text, I will examine how the pandemic has affected the Indian government’s Midday Meals Scheme (MDMS), as well as COVID-19’s impact on the nation’s food insecurity indicators.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt in almost every corner of the globe. Lost jobs, supply shortages, and school closures have made all populations more vulnerable. The United Nations reported that the equivalent of 255 million jobs were lost worldwide as a result of the pandemic in 2020. Additionally, The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy reported that the unemployment rate in India reached over 23% at its peak in April 2020.
The financial consequences are felt most heavily by day laborers, who use their wages to provide food and other necessities for their families. The impact of the pandemic on government services that many food insecure persons rely on is also worrying. Due to economic downturn and a plummet in revenue collection caused by COVID-19, the Indian government has closed or altered the implementation of essential social services in an attempt to curtail the virus’ spread.
One such service is the Midday Meals Scheme (MDMS), which has given free meals to students in public schools across India since the program’s inception in 1995. The uncertainty and shifting of resources spurred by the pandemic, along with higher unemployment, have exacerbated existing structural problems and put many Indians in precarious situations with regards to food insecurity. Given that there are over 440 million people under the age of 18 in India, it is important to analyze the Indian government’s actions on the MDMS.
The UN reports that over 100 million children are enrolled in the food assistance program. Statistics show that the MDMS’ beneficiaries are relatively more malnourished compared to non-beneficiaries. The closure of Indian schools in March 2020 not only took away their place of learning — but also the students’ lunches. This has created a food insecurity crisis. As reported by several outlets, including DowntoEarth, the Indian government mandated that states continue to provide meals to children, whether through pick-up meals, delivery, or cash transfers in lieu.
Although initially promising, statistics indicate the MDMS’s coverage has been significantly hindered by the pandemic and school closures. According to the Food Corporation of India, 27 states and union territories distributed less food in 2020 than they did in 2019 through the MDMS. This is especially worrying considering the greater need for food assistance given rampant unemployment in India. Not only were not as many beneficiaries covered as in 2019, but additional demand created by the pandemic was not met.
It is encouraging the Indian government has issued guidelines to states to ensure the MDMS is not entirely halted by the pandemic. However, it is critical that in conjunction, states also carry out the program’s implementation to achieve complete coverage. Without this, the guidelines will not have a significant impact on the ground.
Since the MDMS launched in 1995, it has been a leading factor in drawing larger numbers of children from low-income communities to school — children who might have otherwise supplemented their family’s income through child labor. The MDMS’ lack of state coverage may cause students who have lost their meals to return to work and miss out on their education — which may ultimately increase socioeconomic disparities. Additionally, Indian Express reports the MDMS is facing potential budget cuts for 2021–2022. The Indian government must take these challenges head on and give the program its due implementation to stand by India’s youngest generation.
As it has now been over a year since the effects of the pandemic began to be felt strongly in India, it is clear that social services such as the MDMS are under strain. Although it is important to remember that structural deficiencies drive food insecurity trends, and thus necessitate large-scale action to create significant positive change, non-profit organizations like Million Meals Mission can bridge the gap in services that the pandemic has produced in India.
We partner with organizations such as Saadi Rasoi, who provide complete meals predominantly to day laborers in Ludhiana, Punjab. A cost for one complete, nutritious, Saadi Rasoi meal? $0.17, or 12 Indian Rupees. Even a small donation to Million Meals Mission can go a long way in providing food to those who might not otherwise have access. This is a time when food insecure communities are particularly vulnerable and are simultaneously facing uncertainty in health, employment, and education outcomes — left in need of relief more than ever.
Million Meals Mission raises awareness about food insecurity and provides meals to food-insecure communities around the world.
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