A week after she was accused of irregularities in purchases for the Integrated Child Development Scheme, a supplementary nutrition scheme, Maharashtra Women and Child Development minister Pankaja Munde has claimed that she is innocent. The Congress and Nationalist Congress Party insist that Munde cleared the procurement of snacks, water filters and mats worth Rs 206 crore through 24 government resolutions on a single day on February 13, bypassing the tender process. In her defence, Munde claims that had she not done this, the funds would have lapsed. She maintains that the same items were procured at higher costs by the previous Congress-led government in Maharashtra.

Under the child development scheme, hot cooked meals and take-home rations are provided to children in the 0-6 age group and to pregnant and lactating women in village-level child care centres known as anganwadis. The budget is Rs 4 per day for children, Rs 5 for pregnant and lactating women, and Rs 6 for severely malnourished children, with the cost being shared by states and the central government.

In Maharashtra, the provision of take-home rations makes up the largest share of the scheme's budget and is a business worth over Rs 500 crore annually. Documents obtained by Scroll.in show that since 2010, when the Congress was in power, the contracts for supplying take-home rations have been monopolised by three large companies, instead of being given to local women’s groups as mandated by the Supreme Court.

Even in Pankaja Munde’s tenure as minister since last November, the same three manufacturers have continued to supply the bulk of take-home rations. No new tenders have been floated even after these companies’ contract ended in 2013. This, despite them being indicted for malpractices in an inquiry in 2012. One of them, Venkateshwara Mahila Audhyogic Utpadan Sahakari Sanstha Limited, was even described as a fraud company in a 2006 affidavit by the Maharashtra government.

Women's groups threatened

The monopoly of the larger companies is now posing a threat to the women's groups. Representatives of over 300 such groups say that since January, Maharashtra's women and child development department has been threatening to cancel their contracts unless they upgrade their processes. The groups currently use roasting to dry the food but the government wants them to shift to the more expensive extrusion technology costing Rs 1 crore, even though central government guidelines do not list this technology as mandatory. Only large manufacturers can install and operate this technology, the women’s groups say, describing it as a bid to push them out of supply to anganwadis.

In 2004, the Supreme Court had ordered that supplementary nutrition provisions should be supplied to child welfare scheme anganwadis only through village communities, women’s self-help groups and mahila mandals, and not through contractors. The aim was to promote local production, local employment, and to allow monitoring by local communities.

However, an enquiry in 2012 by Biraj Patnaik, a principal adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners in the Right to Food case, revealed that the Maharashtra government had subverted the guidelines. In 2009, it issued an invitation for expression of interest from not just mahila mandals, which are savings groups with low turnover constituting of women from low income families, but from any “woman institution”.

Patnaik investigated three such “woman institutions” providing take-home rations under child development scheme. One was in Latur: the Venkateshwara Mahila Audhyogic Utpadan Sahakari Sanstha Limited. The other two ‒ the Mahalaxmi Mahila Grahudhyog & Balvikas Buddheshiya Audhyogic Sahakari Sanstha and Maharashtra Mahila Sahakari Grahudhyog Sanstha Limited ‒ were in Dhule. He found that each had leased facilities from private agro-companies. The same families owned and ran both the women’s institutions and the private agro-companies. All three had supplied poor quality food, submitted suspicious laboratory reports and false sales tax clearances.

All in the family

In the case of Venkateshwara, a sub-committee of the women’s institution of which one Vanmala Munde was a member had given the production to a private agro-company called Swapnil Agro Pvt Ltd whose Managing Director was her husband, Satishrao Munde. Satishrao Munde was reported to be close to Pankaja Munde’s father, former central cabinet minister Gopinath Munde, and belongs to Munde’s home district Beed. Gopinath Munde had denied the allegations then.

The state government had in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on September 23, 2006, described Venkateshwara as a “contractor which is being practically operated by male members, merely by showing female relatives on documents” and recommended that it be blacklisted.

Following Patnaik’s enquiry, the principal secretary in the women and child development department, Ujjwal Uke, took steps between 2013 and 2014 to bring local women’s groups into the child welfare scheme supply chain. He appointed district collector-led committees to select block-level mahila mandals and self-help groups, or bachat gat, to manufacture and supply take-home rations in over half of the state’s anganwadis. The three large companies were removed from these anganwadi centres’ supply. Their role in a scheme for adolescent girls was discontinued as well.

In a letter dated November 14, 2013, Uke instructed district officials to hand over the the entire state’s supply to mahila mandals and bachat gat as these groups became stronger. The three large manufacturers were to be phased out from the take-home ration supply completely, Uke ordered.

As a result of Uke’s work, local mahila mandals had been given work orders to supply take-home ration to more than 40,000 anganwadi in 580 talukas in the state till December 2014.

Since January 2015, after Uke was transfered out of the women and child development, no new mahila mandals have been contracted for take-home ration supplies. Even the existing mahila mandals' work orders are under threat, with officials insisting they shift to a costly extrusion technology.

Smaller groups under threat

The representatives of the women’s self-help groups and the mahila mandals say they received a letter on January 17 from the department saying all units will be inspected and evaluated on specified counts. Among these will be whether they have food extrusion technology, even though this is not mandatory under central government guidelines. Most mahila mandals have 10-20 members and a turnover of Rs 5 lakhs-Rs 6 lakhs annually.

They say it is impossible for them to abandon their semi-automated plants similar to flour mills that rely on roasting to dry the food and cost Rs 15 lakh, and switch to fully automated factory-like extrusion-based plants costing up to Rs 1 crore.

As per the Mysore-based Central Food Technology and Research Institute, one of India’s 40 national research laboratories, there is no difference between extrusion or roasted technology in terms of food quality, shelf life or safety. The only difference is in terms of scale of preparation.

The members of mahila mandals say the insistence on more sophisticated technology will reverse the process of decentralisation started in 2013.

As it is, the threats are increasing. In June, the women and child development department sent a letter to a women’s group in Amravati, Siddhivinayak Bachat Gat Mahasangh, cancelling its contract. The letter reasons the government is in favour of decentralisation and that the Amravati group is found supplying to eight anganwadis. Curiously, however, the official letter is marked to Venkateshwara Mahila Audhyogic Utpadan Sahakari Sanstha Limited, one of the three large manufacturers, owned by Satishrao Munde, and says that Venkateshwara should be prepared to take over the supply from August.

Left in the lurch

Kirti Karwa, a member of the group whose contract was cancelled, said: “A few of us self-help groups had pooled resources and formed a federation. We set up one unit to supply to more than one anganwadi and the government straightaway cancelled our work order, giving it to Venkateshwara instead. Since January, the department is raising the bogey of extrusion plants to drive the mahila mandal out. Over 60 mahila mandal already invested in setting up roasting plants after getting fresh work orders in 2014. What will happen to them now?”

Principal Secretary Sanjeev Kumar said the Maharashtra government has asked units to shift to the extrusion technology “because we will have to submit quality certificates to the ministry of women and child development”. He added that the Maharashtra government is in the process of finalising the new tender and will invite bids soon, two years after the last one ended.

Members of the Right to Food Campaign activist group said any circulars from the government that insisted on the use of extrusion technology are based on an incorrect interpretation of the Supreme Court’s order in the Shagun Mahila Mandal case. “The judgement nowhere allows for private contractors or ‘manufacturers’ to be given contracts for the supply,” said Aditya Shrivastava, legal advisor, Supreme Court Commissioners in the Right to Food case. “Since 2004, the Supreme Court orders are clear that the supply preferably be from mahila mandals, self-help groups, women’s collectives.”