The government has chalked out a mammoth Tk 19,280 crore project proposal to provide daily school meals for all 1.41 crore government primary school students to increase attendance and reduce dropouts.
Primary and mass education ministry officials said they sent the Development Project Proposal (DPP) of Primary School Feeding Programme (PSFP) to the planning commission in early July for approval.
They said the project will be vital to containing the regular trend of dropouts as well as dropouts following the Covid-19 outbreak.
Many government documents and international reports have warned that the ongoing closure of schools in the country due to the coronavirus pandemic is increasing the possibility that thousands of marginalised students across the country may have to drop out and fall into child labour.
“If the project approval is delayed, we may face some problems as the tenure of the ongoing school feeding programme will end in December this year,” said a top official of primary and mass education ministry earlier this week.
“Many project approvals take place in quick time, but in the past, we had seen approval process of many large projects takes a long time,” said the official, adding that in case of delays in approval, they might fall behind and face extra dropouts caused by the coronavirus-induced closures.
Primary and Mass Education Senior Secretary Akram-Al-Hossain, however, said he believed that the school feeding project will be approved quickly and they will not fall behind in responding to the coronavirus situation.
“I believe the project will be passed in the PEC meeting soon and subsequently it will be approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council,” he said.
The process will be completed within two or three months, he added.
THE PROJECT PROPOSAL
According to the officials, the five-year school feeding programme will run from July 2020 to June 2025. The government will bear the cost of the Tk19,280 crore project.
Ongoing school feeding programme project director Ruhul Amin Khan said cooked meals and biscuits will be provided to all 1.41 crore students of 66,000 government primary schools in phases by 2023.
Students of all government schools of 250 upazilas will avail the school feeding by 2021, students of 350 upazilas will get the benefit in 2022 and all students by 2023, he said.
According to DPP, students will get cooked meals for three days and fortified biscuits for the three other days.
The cabinet in August 2019 approved the National School Meal Policy-2019. The policy is designed to increase attendance and reduce the rate of dropouts, as well as to ensure that children get at least 30 percent of their required daily calorie intake at school, said officials.
Bangladesh currently has two school feeding programmes.
Under one, the government distributes packets of biscuits, each weighing 75 grams, to nearly 3 million children at primary schools in 104 upazilas, said Ruhul.
Under a separate pilot project that began in 2013, around 34,000 students get hot vegetable khichuri meals in three upazilas — Bamna in Barguna, Islampur in Jamalpur, and Lama in Bandarban, he added.
Project officials said they have seen attendance rates increasing by 11 percent in the areas where cooked meals were given and by 6.6 percent where fortified biscuits were given.
Besides, dropout rates have decreased by six percent in schools that provided the meals.
THE COVID-19 EFFECT
As all primary schools have been closed since March 17 due to the Covid-19 outbreak, school feeding programme officials and teachers are facing some problems in getting the biscuits to the students’ homes, said officials.
They usually distribute biscuits at schools and students are being deprived of nutrition as schools are closed.
“We have distributed 50 to 100 packets of biscuits in two phases for each student at their homes, so that they are not deprived of nutrition while schools are closed due to the coronavirus situation,” Ruhul said, adding that students who used to get cooked meals are now getting biscuits.
The Directorate of Primary Education’s stakeholder engagement plan on the Covid-19 situation and government’s “Covid-19 Response Plan for Education Sector” both warned of a rise in dropout rates due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In July, a Save the Children report said children in 28 countries, including Bangladesh, are at moderate or high risk of dropping out.