Women’s self-help groups in Maharashtra have clinched a significant victory in the Supreme Court, which struck down tenders worth Rs 6,300 crore issued by the state government in 2016 for the production and supply of take-home rations under the Centre’s Integrated Child Development Scheme.

The Court’s judgement, given on February 26, severely criticised minister Pankaja Munde’s Women and Child Development department for issuing tenders with “arbitrarily fixed” terms and conditions that made it impossible for small-scale mahila bachatgats or women’s self-help groups to participate in the Scheme. Instead, the state government had awarded the tenders to three private, large-scale contractors who had already been indicted for providing poor quality food rations by a 2012 Supreme Court-appointed committee.

The Supreme Court has now ordered the Maharashtra government to stop the supply of ICDS rations under the current system, issue fresh tenders within four weeks, and design an alternate system of ration-supply for the interim period. “Terms and conditions of the tenders should not be framed in such a manner that they [women’s self-help groups] get excluded from participating itself,” the judgement said.

“This is a milestone judgement and mahila bachatgats are very happy about it,” said Kirti Karwa, the head of the Siddhivinayak Bachatgat Mahasangh, a women’s self-help group in Amravati district. Karwa claimed that most women’s self-help groups in the state have had no work for the past two years, ever since the government made them ineligible for contracts. “Our businesses have suffered tremendously. We want the government to issue new tenders immediately, so that we can start supplying take-home rations again.”

How women’s groups were excluded

The Integrated Child Development Scheme is a nationwide supplementary nutrition programme that 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. Take-home rations are roast-dried, packaged, ready-to-cook meals that are typically made of wheat, sugar, soybean and specified quantities of micronutrients.

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 scheme. 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.

Like several other states, however, Maharashtra has been flouting these rules on the ground for years.

In September 2014, the state government issued tenders and awarded contracts to 314 small-scale women’s groups to manufacture and supply ICDS take-home rations. Each group was expected to supply rations to around 25 or 30 anganwadis in a particular zone or geographical unit. The government had divided Maharashtra into 533 such units.

At the time, the eligibility criteria for self-help groups were simple: each group had to be at least two years old, with an annual turnover of Rs 3 lakh. To participate in the Scheme, many of the self-help groups invested between Rs 15 lakh to Rs 20 lakh to buy roasting machines, blenders and pulverisers as per the requirements of the scheme.

In December 2015, however, the self-help groups were issued notices giving them two months to switch from roaster plants to extrusion machines, which serve the same function as roaster plants but are used for large-scale production and cost more than Rs 1 crore. This was, of course, unaffordable for the women’s groups.

By March 2016, the state government floated new tenders for ICDS ration supplies, worth an estimated Rs 6,300 crore, with extremely strict eligibility criteria. For one, the government reduced the 533 geographical units under the scheme to 70 large units, each to be serviced by one ration supplier. The supplier had to have an annual turnover worth at least 25% of the whole block’s purchases of take-home rations, which amounted to a turnover of Rs 1 crore to Rs 7 crore per year. Moreover, the new tender made expensive extrusion technology mandatory.

An inadequate High Court verdict

In response, 36 women’s groups petitioned the Bombay High Court, claiming that the state’s tenders were keeping small self-help groups out in favour of big, private companies. In July 2016, the Aurangabad bench of the High Court delivered a favourable judgement scrapping the Rs 6,300-crore tenders. The bench also invalidated the government’s move to reduce the number of geographical units in the state from 533 to 70, and ordered the state to conduct a fresh survey of all units and eligible self-help groups.

But for self-help groups, the High Court order had one glaring inadequacy: it upheld the strict terms and conditions in the tender that made automated machinery and extrusion technology mandatory for suppliers of take-home rations. This prompted women’s groups to approach the Supreme Court.

In its February 26 judgement, the Supreme Court has unequivocally stated that the Maharashtra government had pushed local self-help groups out of the ICDS scheme in order to favour a few private contractors that were listed as women-owned businesses on paper, but were in fact fronts for large companies run by politically influential men.

The court criticised the state for making eligibility conditions such that self-help groups had to have a turnover of between Rs 1 crore and Rs 7 crore annually. The imposition of this condition ensured that “only big players have been left in the field”, the Court said. “That is not in tune with the spirit of the [National Food Security] Act and the orders passed by this Court as well as the policy framed by the Government of India.”

Misleading the Court

The Court also slammed the state government for misrepresenting facts in an earlier ICDS-related case of 2011 – the Shagun Mahila Mandal versus State of Maharashtra case, in which the Supreme Court had allowed the state government to make extrusion technology and automation a required eligibility criterion in ICDS tenders.

For that judgement, the Court had relied on a letter that the Maharashtra government claimed was issued by the Government of India, containing recipes for micronutrient-fortified take-home rations and indicating that extrusion technology was needed to make those rations. However, in the latest case, self-help groups submitted evidence to show that the letter was not a directive of the central government, but merely a recommendation by a joint technical director of the western region of the union Ministry for Women and Child Development.

In its February 26 judgement, the Supreme Court stated that the Maharashtra government had “misled” the Court in the Shagun Mahila case of 2011, and that its observations in the Shagun Mahila case regarding the need for extrusion technology now stand diluted. The Court also pointed out that the central government’s guidelines for the ICDS scheme do not, in fact, make any sophisticated technology mandatory, and that “self-help groups/mahila mandals are fully equipped and competent” to make and supply take-home rations.