UNICEF-IIM-A survey on MDM: Gujarat says sample ‘too small’, was going through ‘tough times’ during study period

More than 99 per cent of the beneficiaries of MDM scheme registered with primary schools in Ahmedabad received the payment (in lieu of the scheme), including cooking costs, the survey stated.

The state government told the Gujarat High Court Tuesday the sample size of a survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), and the UNICEF Gujarat on the distress caused in households that did not get any benefit of mid-day meal (MDM) scheme amid the coronavirus-induced lockdown, was “too small”.

More than 99 per cent of the beneficiaries of MDM scheme registered with primary schools in Ahmedabad received the payment (in lieu of the scheme), including cooking costs, it stated.

A division bench of the high court had taken a suo motu cognizance of the survey report, published by The Indian Express on December 18, and issued notices to the principal secretary education and commissioner mid-day meal, asking them to file their replies by January 5.

The study conducted in urban households of Ahmedabad had primarily found that several families were inability to access MDM benefits, or payment in lieu of it, as children were forced to drop out of schools due to non-payment of fees and failure to access online education.

In its affidavit filed through the education department, and represented by government pleader Manisha Shah, the state government also stated the time period during which the survey was conducted – between July and September – was “crucial” for the state which was facing “lockdowns, curfews and Covid-19 cases”.

“In the context of Covid-19, the sample survey was conducted for 375 families, 30 per cent of whom claimed to be sending their children to government schools and thus entitling them to MDMs, which means 117 families. My submission is the sample is too small,” Shah told the court.

Currently, the MDM scheme “is being implemented in a total of 32,822 government primary schools across the state and a total of 50,29,339 students from class 1 to 8 are registered for the academic year 2021, Shah added.

The survey, the state government submitted, was conducted between the “crucial period” of July to September when the state was “going through lockdowns, and curfews”. Shah also highlighted during the course of her submissions that midday meals are meant to be given “whilst the schools are functioning… and are meant to be given to students between class 1 to 8”. “It was our toughest time. Probably at the relevant point of time some may have moved out, (while) some may have migrated. Any difficulty, we are ready to help,” Shah stated.

Hearing the government’s submissions, Chief Justice Vikram Nath said: “Either we call the two organisations that conducted the survey (IIM-A and UNICEF) and they may examine your affidavit and respond. They can throw some light on that and then there can be some meaningful outcome of this petition. Or, we call upon a couple of public-spirited lawyers and they examine (it).”

The government pleader said neither may be necessary if the court saw the “exemplary work” done by the state government in this regard. However, Shah informed the court later that the state government has “no objection” if those who carried out the survey were brought before the court.

“We did approach them. (But) their answer was: ‘we maintain complete secrecy and do not reveal the (details of the) surveyed households’. Else we could’ve individually gone to these households, which hadn’t received (the benefits of the MDM), and verified. In which case, we could’ve (also) determined if our data (of monitoring beneficiaries) is not going right (or not). But they declined to provide any access to names (of the 375 households),” Shah said.

The court expressed its agreement with Shah’s submissions and asked how could one verify the authenticity of a survey if the identity of those surveyed weren’t revealed.

Shah also informed the court that the government had covered 99.3 per cent of the children, who are entitled to MDM and registered with primary schools in Ahmedabad. “Total registered children (in Ahmedabad) between class 1 and 5 are 72,511, of which children who were paid (in lieu of midday meals) with cooking costs comes to 71,983. All this distribution is done and is constantly being monitored,” Shah said.

Responding to the survey’s observation on inaccessibility to online education, Shah submitted, “For online learning, in my humble submission, is a matter of effort. One has to be self-motivated, that is one more aspect.” All online education material, he said, is available round-the-clock.

On students dropping out of school over their inability to pay fees, Shah said the issue was “crystallised only on 7th of October (2020) when the government resolution came to be passed giving them 25 per cent respite (in fees). The sample survey was conducted between July and September. I believe today they would not be having any grievances, but even otherwise, if they do, a grievance redressal mechanism in place as well,” said Shah.

Following the state government’s submissions, the court concluded that “all grievances (as raised in the suo motu litigation) have been raised for the Covid-19 period” and the division bench deemed it fit to hear the matter with other Covid-19 related matters on January 8.

The suo motu cognizance was taken by a bench headed by Justice J B Pardiwala on December 18, which termed the key findings of the survey “very serious, which calls for the immediate attention of the state government”.

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