NUTRITION DEBATE

Rs 575 crore business – but 3 million children stand to lose their hot cooked meals in Maharashtra

The state has used a loophole created by the Centre to replace freshly cooked meals with packaged food.

More than three million children in Maharashtra will no longer be served freshly cooked meals in government-run crèches called anganwadis. The state government has invited bids for the production and supply of packaged ‘ready-to-cook’ food mixes for children between the age of three and six.

This marks a major departure from India’s approach to tackling malnutrition among children. So far, under the four-decades old nationwide scheme called the Integrated Child Development Services, anganwadis provide supplementary nutrition to children between the age of three and six in the form of daily hot cooked meals, either prepared by anganwadi staff or supplied by local groups.

This dramatic shift to ready-to-cook meals in Maharashtra has been made possible because of conflicting instructions and regulations issued by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, even though the National Food Security Act clearly states that children aged 3-6 years should be served only hot cooked meals.

The state government’s move will provide an assured Rs 575 crore worth annual business to the few who can manufacture the ready-to-cook meals. This would come at the cost of thousands of self-help groups and other village level organisations that currently earn small amounts by serving hot cooked meals.

In Wardha district in eastern Maharashtra, for instance, 13 women of a small self-help group called the Mauli Mahila Bachatgat prepare fresh meals every morning – khichdi, pulses, poha, nutritious laddus – based on a menu provided by the state government, and transport them to three rural anganwadis in the vicinity, either on foot or through a short auto ride. At the same anganwadis, infants from the age of six months to three years are provided with “take-home rations” – machine-made, packaged, dry food mixes fortified with micronutrients.

“Older children love the hot cooked meals, but the take-home rations are so bad to taste, they are usually just thrown away or given to cattle,” said Nilima Ghate, who has been running the Mauli Mahila Bachatgat since 2006. “Parents ask us all the time why the government won’t let babies eat fresh hot meals too.”

While take-home rations for the younger children typically constitute ready-to-eat pastes and mixes that can be consumed after heating in water or milk for two minutes, the ready-to-cook food mixes for 3-6-year-olds will comprise dehydrated meals like khichdi and pulav that need to be cooked for 15 to 20 minutes.

Scroll.in has a copy of the tender which was issued on July 15. It invites bids for the supply of ready-to-cook food mixes for a contract period of five years in all 34 rural and tribal sectors in Maharashtra – effectively, all areas barring towns and cities. The pre-mixes, which range from dal khichdi, soya khichdi, sweet rice, dalia, rice pulav, sevai and lapsi, will need to be fortified with micronutrients.

But not everyone is convinced about the nutritional value of the packaged mixes over locally-sourced freshly cooked meals. Activists also question the legality of the government’s move.

Bureaucratic trickery to bypass the law

“The Maharashtra government is clearly going against the National Food Security Act by issuing a tender for ready-to-cook mixes instead of hot cooked meals,” said Dipa Sinha, an activist from the Right to Food campaign.

On its part, the state government has invoked the National Food Security Act in the tender document, along with three Central government guidelines and rules under the law. These conflicting rules and guidelines provide leeway for Maharashtra to push the case for ready-to-eat meals.

Schedule II of the National Food Security Act sets the standards for what should be served to children between 3-6 years. It says children will be served a morning snack and a daily hot cooked meal amounting to 500 kilocalories, with 20-25 grams of proteins in each meal.

For a law to be implemented, the government needs to put in place its rules. These rules are meant to further the law’s purpose but not contradict, alter or restrict its functioning. But the rules framed under the law by the Women and Child Development ministry open a loophole that alters the functioning of the National Food Security Act.

Provision 6 of the rules says:

“The nutritional standards shall be the same as provided in Schedule II of the Act and the Nutritional and Feeding norms issued by the Central Government in the Ministry of Women and Child Development from time to time.” (emphasis added)

The nutrition and feeding norms referred to by the ministry were issued in the form of guidelines on February 24, 2009 – four years before the food security law was passed. They state that supplementary food may be fortified, detailing to extreme precision the levels of fortification. For example, one of the norms states that each serving of a meal should have 0.45 mg of Thiamin and 200 micrograms of Vitamin A.

In 2015, the Women and Child Development ministry made it mandatory for state governments to certify that these norms were being followed while providing supplementary food under the ICDS program. The state governments quite naturally could not certify that hot cooked meals being served by each small self-help group contains these nutrients down to such minute levels.

Maharashtra government appears to have latched on to these guidelines and rules to replace hot cooked meals with ready-to-cook packaged food which are manufactured at large-scale factories and can undergo regular laboratory tests.

While the tender states that private contractors and manufacturers will not be eligible for the contracts, Maharashtra has already witnessed a scandal of self-help groups being used as fronts by politicians and large contractors. Investigations by a Supreme Court-appointed committee in 2012 had found the provision of “take-home rations” – a Rs 500 crore annual business – was monopolised by just three private contractors. On paper, all three were technically women’s institutions but they were actually owned and run by private agro-companies.

Despite several attempts, Scroll.in was unable to meet or speak with senior officials from the state’s Women and Child Development department. Scroll.in’s email queries to the officials in the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development also went unanswered.

Women from bachatgats and anganwadis in Maharashtra protested against the new tender at a rally in Mumbai in July. Photos: Aarefa Johari
Women from bachatgats and anganwadis in Maharashtra protested against the new tender at a rally in Mumbai in July. Photos: Aarefa Johari

Decentralised versus industrialised

The provision of hot cooked meals for older children has been, by default, a decentralised industry involving around 45,000 small self-help groups and employing at least 1.5 lakh women in Maharashtra. These fresh meals favour native diets and locally-grown food which change from region to region within the state.

Women’s self-help groups say the strict pre-conditions listed in the tender automatically disqualify small-scale bachatgats like Ghate’s from applying.

In order to manufacture these fortified mixes, the tender makes it mandatory for interested bachatgats to possess a list of 27 different machines, including “vibro separator blowers”, “magnetic separators”, “D-stoner cyclones with air locks”, “vitamin micro-feeders” and “air compressors”.

“They are also asking all applicants to submit a video of how their machines work,” said Kirti Karwa, a member of the Maharashtra Mahila Bachatgat Mahasangha, a union of women’s self-help groups in the state. “How can small bachatgats supplying to four or five anganwadis achieve all this?”

The tender requires applicant bachatgats to have an annual turnover worth at least 25% of the district’s yearly cost of production of the ready-to-cook mixes. According to the tender itself, this amounts to expected turnovers between Rs 1 crore and Rs 7 crore, depending on the district.

In Wardha, Nilima Ghate’s Mauli Mahila Bachatgat has an annual turnover of Rs 60,000. If the new tender for ready-to-cook mixes is allowed to push through, it will inevitably put Ghate and her 13 employees out of a job.

In repeated judgements since 2004, the Supreme Court has 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, several states have repeatedly violated these orders for take home rations, including Maharashtra, paving the way for private contractors who use self-help groups as fronts. Many activists and bachatgats fear that the supply of the new ready-to-cook mixes will fall prey to the same fate.

Anganwadi workers claim that dry sev provided as take-home ration in parts of Mumbai is too spicy for children to eat.
Anganwadi workers claim that dry sev provided as take-home ration in parts of Mumbai is too spicy for children to eat.

More expensive to produce

According to officials at the state government’s ICDS office in Mumbai, there are approximately 17 lakh children between the ages of 0-6 years who avail of the scheme’s supplementary nutrition programme. Of these, around 1.6% are children suffering from severely acute malnutrition, who are to be provided with take-home rations worth Rs 9 per child per day. For the rest of the children, a standard budget of Rs 6 per child per day has been allocated for both take-home rations and hot cooked meals.

“This amount will remain the same even when hot cooked meals are replaced by ready-to-cook pre-mixes,” said an official at the ICDS office, who did not wish to be identified. “The Centre has fixed the rate of Rs 6 per child per day based on what is possible, so suppliers who feel they cannot produce the food at that rate need not apply for the tender.”

Bachatgats, however, claim that machine-made ready-to-cook mixes – meant to be dehydrated, dried and fortified with special micronutrients – will be a lot more expensive to make than hot cooked meals, where fresh ingredients were sourced from local markets.

“The mixes are likely to be at least 25% more expensive to produce, particularly because of the added transportation costs due to centralised production,” said Karwa. “So if the budget allocation is the same, obviously there will be a compromise in quality.”

The next part in this series will look at the debate over what is more nutritious for children locally sourced freshly cooked meals or micronutrient fortified packaged mixes.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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