DATAAN, India -- Munni Sahariya, a lean, shy girl with a nose ring, spread a jute mat on the floor of her first-grade classroom and sat down with her three younger siblings. When the teacher read out the Hindi-language alphabet in the modest two-room village school, Munni, 9, held her textbook in one hand and rocked her wailing 3-year-old brother with the other.
Munni is a bit old to be in the first grade, and her brother is too young to be in school. But her parents pulled her out of school three years ago, when she had barely finished first grade. Like many children in India, she was forced to stay home to take care of siblings. Others are forced to stay home to work.
At a village school in northwestern India, Munni Sahariya, front row, third from left, eats lunch with her siblings and other children. Munni's parents took her out of school but let her return when the school started offering free meals.
(Rama Lakshmi -- For The Washington Post)
In the meantime, Munni had forgotten how to read and write.
"My mother and father do labor jobs in distant farmland and construction sites all day. I had to stay at home and take care of the younger ones," she recalled.
But Munni has returned to school thanks to an innovative government free lunch program.
In Dataan, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, 59 percent of girls drop out of school before finishing fifth grade, according to government statistics. But school records in Dataan show a 23 percent increase in girls' enrollment and attendance since the program began three years ago. Six older girls have also returned to Munni's school because of the program.
Such food programs started in some states in 2002; a Supreme Court order made them mandatory across India as of January. Last month, India's Finance Ministry raised the midday meal budget from $38 million to $67 million for 110 million primary school children.
The campaign for nationwide lunches began in 2001, when social activists complained about cases of starvation and malnutrition across the country, including in Rajasthan. At the time, government warehouses were well-stocked with grain.
"When schools provide midday meals, children often rush to the schools on their own," said Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born development economist who is a member of the government's National Advisory Council. "There is strong evidence that midday meals have led to major increases in school attendance in many parts of India, especially among girls and disadvantaged children."
Munni's mother said she decided to send her daughter back to school because of the food program. "They only gave free food to the children who went to school, not those who were at home. So I sent her back to school last year," said Santo Sahariya, 45, sitting outside her bare, one-room, thatch-roof hut. She and her husband toil 10 hours every day to earn less than $2 to support their four children.
She can send the younger children to school with Munni, who "can look after them. . . . And they will also eat the food served there," Sahariya noted.
Munni said that within two hours of arriving at school, "rats start running" in her stomach, using a popular Indian phrase for being hungry. Officials said many children in India, like Munni, reach school without having eaten.
Besides lunch, the state has been distributing food to take home, a nutritious powdery substance called "India mix" -- containing ground soybean, wheat, gram, barley, sugar and glucose. "It is so popular among the children that we distribute it at the end of the day, so that they stay in school the whole time," said Munni's teacher, Rafiq Ahmad.
An earlier effort to assist poor rural families and improve education by giving six pounds of wheat every month to children who attended school was abandoned because they turned up at class only on the day of distribution.
When the bell rang for the one-hour school break in Dataan one recent day, children ran excitedly out of the classrooms into the open courtyard, some with empty steel bowls and others with pages torn from old textbooks on which they would collect their meals.
Teachers told them to sit in neat rows on the ground under an acacia tree as a woman served ghoogri, a mix of boiled wheat and unrefined sugar, from a cauldron. Munni's younger siblings, who were not enrolled in the school, also eagerly lined up for a share.
Dreze, the economist, said the food program also helps break the barriers of caste, class and gender because children learn to sit together and share a meal. Social mingling, however, has caused some friction -- members of upper castes have sometimes complained about schools hiring members of the "untouchables," people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, as cooks.
Meanwhile, Munni's teacher said that even with the free meals, girls often drop out of school. They "have to help the family during the harvest season or look after the younger siblings," Ahmad said. "Girls also get married quite early. It is very difficult to retain them because education is not a priority."
Munni's mother acknowledged as much. "She is our firstborn and we will marry her in about three years," she said. "She can study until then."