Shortly after Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the minister of food processing, sparked a controversy by reportedly asking PepsiCo chief Indra Nooyi to produce processed food for the mid-day meal scheme, processed nutritional food was in focus again.

Last week, while hearing a writ petition on the supply of food under the Centre’s Integrated Child Development Scheme, the Supreme Court reprimanded the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan for continuing to employ private contractors to manufacture and supply packets of processed food to state anganwadis, despite several warnings to discontinue the practice.

Anganwadis are government-run crèches that implement nutrition programmes for the economically marginalised to tackle India’s high rates of child malnutrition. India currently has close to 14 lakh anganwadis where children aged three to six are given one hot cooked meal every day, while infants, toddlers, pregnant women and lactating mothers are given take-home rations in the form of ready-to-cook blended food mixes.

Court directives

In repeated rulings since 2004, the Supreme Court has been making clear that contractors are to be kept out of such food and nutrition programmes. Instead, the court has directed state governments to set up self-help groups and women’s community groups in every village to produce food for the take-home rations.

Recently, even the central government has been conscious about the need to keep private contractors out of the scheme. On August 26, after reports claimed that Harsimrat Kaur Badal had asked PepsiCo’s head to make processed nutritional food for the mid-day meal scheme in government schools across the country, the ministry of food processing issued a hurried clarification claiming that the minister did not support any such proposal.

For several years, however, many state governments have been defying the apex court’s orders and allowing take-home rations at anganwadis to be supplied either by large private companies or smaller, nominal community groups that were fronts for bigger contractors.

This corruption was formally highlighted in a 2012 report by the Office of the Supreme Court Commissioners which claimed that at least four states – Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra – were providing poor-quality food to anganwadis either directly or indirectly through contractors.

In UP, for instance, the company Great Value Foods – owned by the late liquor baron Ponty Chadha – has been monopolising production of take-home rations since 2005, while in Maharashtra, private contractors have been masquerading as mahila mandals (women’s groups) in order to win contracts under the ICDS.

Decentralising production

In Gujarat, the state government has repeatedly been assuring the Supreme Court that it is in the process of decentralising the production of take-home rations and handing it over to village communities. But on the ground, for several years, the state’s department of women and child development has been floating tenders and handing over contracts for processed food production worth Rs 500 crore to a handful of contractors, particularly Kota Dal Mills and Muruliwala Agrotech – both based in Rajasthan.

The state has continued to do this despite a 2006 apex court warning to decentralise food production and a 2010 Gujarat High Court order which noted that the contracts being given through were a violation of Supreme Court rulings.

“The supplementary nutrition programme under the ICDS is meant to be a community programme for feeding vulnerable people,” said Sejal Dand, a Gujarat-based member of the non-profit Right to Food Campaign. “There cannot be any commercial interests in the provision of public food, and it is definitely not a platform for floating tenders.”

According to Dand, in 2010, the Gujarat government submitted an ambiguous affidavit to the High Court claiming that self-help groups were involved in the supply of food in some form or the other in around 20,000 anganwadis, while other private manufacturers were supplying food in the 28,000 remaining anganwadis.

When the court directed the state to set a time frame within which it would transfer all food production to self-help groups, the Gujarat government asked for a year’s time, failed to meet the deadline and asked for another year’s extension in 2013. This fortnight, the Supreme Court pulled up the state government once again for its slow progress on decentralisation.

Despite several attempts, could not reach any officials at the Gujarat government’s women and child development department.

“The Gujarat government keeps claiming that its pilot projects with self-help groups are doing very well, so why is the process of decentralising taking so much time?” said Dand. “The tenders floated for contractors are actually deliberately keeping local mahila mandals out of the system.”

How self-help groups are kept out

Before 2009, supplementary nutrition and feeding programmes under the ICDS emphasised the need to provide locally made, nutrient-rich, traditional foods to vulnerable populations. In 2009, however, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development issued revised nutrition norms that required higher calorie and protein content in anganwadi food. One of the ministry’s guidelines suggested fortifying the food with specific, controlled quantities of micronutrients, something that can only be achieved by huge plants with the appropriate machinery.

The need for such micronutrient fortification is just a recommendation that was not ratified by the Supreme Court. “Many states in India have chosen to prepare food mixes with local ingredients that already have the nutritional value required for children,” said Dand.

But the Gujarat government has made the micronutrients a major aspect of its contract with private food companies. In one of the latest tenders that the state’s department of women and child development floated in November 2013, the government invited “experienced and reputed” contractors who would be able to manufacture more than 10,000 metric tonnes a month of energy-dense, micronutrient-fortified food packets across the whole state for one year. The bids were invited from manufacturers with the “requisite infrastructure, plant and machinery and technical expertise to produce Extruded Micronutrient Fortified Blended Food”.

What’s more, the tender form states that in order to qualify, the bidder must have had an average annual turnover of at least Rs 60 crore for the past two years, and should “have a proven track record” of supplying similar food under government schemes for at least one year in the past five years.

Criminal conspiracy

Such emphasis on micronutrient fortification, experience and high turnovers automatically precludes the eligibility of smaller, village-level self-help groups as manufacturers of take-home rations.

“This is a clear case of complicity and criminal conspiracy between corrupt officials and corrupt contractors,” said Harsh Mander, a social worker who, as the special commissioner to the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, co-authored the 2012 report highlighting the rampant corruption in the ICDS food provision schemes.

“The penetration of for-profit organisations in matters such as child nutrition have always proved to be disastrous,” said Mander. “It is only by decentralising the food supply that we can ensure transparency and accountability.”