For the past 18 months, Manisha Rakhunde’s mahila bachatgat or women’s self-help group has been making nutritious food rations that go on to feed more than 60,000 vulnerable children in Maharashtra’s Osmanabad district. Now, thanks to a new state government rule, she is no longer sure if her modest business employing 21 rural women will be allowed to stay afloat.

In September 2014, Rakhunde’s group – MP Supriyatai Sule Mahila Bachatgat – was one among 314 small-scale women’s groups to be given a license to manufacture and supply take-home rations under the central government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme or ICDS. A supplementary nutrition programme, the ICDS aims to tackle high malnutrition rates among the poor by providing either hot-cooked meals or nutrient-filled take-home rations to lactating mothers, infants and children below six at anganwadis or government-run crèches.

“As per the scheme’s requirements, we invested Rs 20 lakh to set up a roasting plant for making dry take-home rations,” said Rakhunde. The packaged rations comprise roast-dried, ready-to-cook mixes of wheat, sugar, soya and micronutrients in the quantities specified under the scheme. Once a month, the mixes are delivered to 240 anganwadis in Osmanabad’s Kalam taluka. The group has been selling mixes worth Rs 6 to 8 lakh annually so far.

Government googly

Things were going well until suddenly, this December, the government sent Rakhunde’s self-help group and others a letter giving them two months to move from roaster plants to extrusion machines if they wanted to continue to provide take-home rations under ICDS. Extrusion machines, which cost more than Rs 1 crore, serve the same purpose as roasters but are used for large-scale production. “How can small self-help groups like ours afford extruders?” asked Rakhunde. “There are no guidelines mandating such technology. They are pushing us out to make way for big contractors.”

Rakhunde’s group approached the Bombay High Court and managed to get a temporary stay on the government’s two-month deadline. But the state government seems determined to jeopardise these small self-help groups across Maharashtra. On March 8, the government floated a new tender for ICDS ration supplies that favours extrusion technology, which only large, private contractors can afford.

A murky past

Since 2004, the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasised that contracts for the production and distribution of ICDS foods should be given to local-level self-help groups and women’s community groups, while large contractors should be kept out of the programme. This decentralisation is meant to ensure that the focus of the government scheme remains quality food supply and generation of rural employment, rather than private profit-making.

On the ground, however, state governments have been defying the apex court’s orders by allowing take-home rations to be supplied by large private companies or women’s groups that are actually fronts for bigger contractors. In 2009, the central government issued nutritional norms for ICDS food rations. States began to use this as an excuse to claim that small self-help groups lacked the technology and financial capability to abide by the norms. Gujarat and Rajasthan, for instance, were found to be openly favouring a handful of private contractors on these grounds.

Similarly, since 2009, Maharashtra has allowed the provision of take-home rations – a Rs 500 crore annual business – to be monopolised by just three private contractors who were supplying to at least half the anganwadis in the state. On paper, all three were technically women’s institutions but they, in fact, were owned and run by private agro-companies. After investigations by a Supreme Court-appointed committee in 2012, all three companies were found to be supplying poor quality food and submitting false sales tax clearances. One of them – the Venkateshwara Mahila Audhyogic Utpadan Sahakari Sanstha – had even been described as a fraud company in a 2006 Maharashtra government affidavit.

In 2013, when the contracts of these companies expired, no new tenders were floated for a long time, even though the state expressed an intention to begin the process of decentralising the supply of take-home rations. Contracts were awarded to 314 bachatgats, including Rakhunde’s, after multiple delays in 2014.

“When we were selected, the criteria for selection were simple – the bachatgats had to be at least two years old with a turnover of at least Rs 3 lakh,” said Kirti Karwa, who heads the Siddhivinayak Bachatgat Mahasangh in Amravati. The Siddhivinayak bachatgat spent Rs 15 lakh to buy a roaster machine, pulveriser and blender as per the requirements of the contract.

Besides the 314, at least 64 other self-help groups were selected for the provision of take-home rations, but are yet to receive orders to begin production. “In December 2014, soon after the government changed, a subsidiary of the Venkateshwara company filed a writ petition in court alleging that self-help groups were not following the conditions of the contract,” said Karwa. “After that, the government stopped issuing work orders to the remaining bachatgats.” In many of the places where these groups have not been allowed to start work, take-home rations are still being supplied by the three big companies despite evidence that they had supplied poor quality food in the past.

Impossible conditions

Now, Maharashtra has once again introduced conditions that will make it almost impossible for self-help groups to survive.

In December 2015, the state classified bachatgats into three categories – those that already had extrusion facilities were labelled “A” and given a one year extension on their licenses, “B” grade bachatgats were given two months to move from roasters to extruders, and “C” grade ones have not been allowed to operate since January 20.

On February 25, a government resolution issued by the state’s Women and Child Development Department offered some hope to these self-help groups – it stated that the department would have to follow the Supreme Court’s guidelines on decentralisation and accordingly design conditions to suit small self-help groups. But it soon took a U-turn. “But to our utter surprise, the government came out with a new resolution just four days later, deleting all the clauses favouring decentralisation,” said Karwa.

Based on the latest resolution, the government floated new ICDS tenders on March 8 that, among other conditions, mandate completely automatic, extrusion-based facilities in any women’s institution bidding to supply take-home rations.

“No local self-help group can fit the conditions in the latest tenders,” said Karwa, an active member of the Maharashtra Mahila Bachatgat Mahasangha, an association of 400 small self-help groups across the state. The Mahasangh is already fighting for the rights of self-help groups in the high court, and now plans to sue the state government in the Supreme Court. Karwa added: “The government’s new tender is tailor-made only for the big contractors.”