The Union Budget for 2021-’22 includes significant cuts to the funds allocated towards social welfare programmes such as child and maternal nutrition schemes.

Researchers and activists have expressed concern that several separate schemes for women and children have been clubbed together and jointly allocated funds that are lower than previous years.

These budget cuts come in the wake of a Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown that disrupted the supply of food grains to millions of vulnerable populations across India in 2020.

Integrated Child Development Scheme

The budget for the Integrated Child Development Scheme – an infant and child nutrition scheme that involves running village-level anganwadis or creches – was Rs 20,532 crore in the 2020-’21 budget. This year, however, the ICDS has been clubbed under the Centre’s Saksham scheme, along with the Poshan Abhiyan, Scheme for Adolescent Girls and the National Creche Scheme. The total fund allocated to the Saksham scheme is Rs 20,105 crore – less than the previous year’s total budget of Rs 24,557 crore for Saksham, and also less than the 2020-’21 budget for ICDS alone.

Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana

Similarly, the Centre’s maternity benefit programme – the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana – has been clubbed under the Samarthya scheme, which also includes the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme for girls’ education, the Mahila Shakti Kendra and general gender budgeting. The total budget for the Samarthya scheme this year is Rs 2,522 crore, less than the Rs 2,828 crore allocated towards it last year. Rs 2,522 crore is also just marginally more than the total budget for PMMVY last year.

Mid-Day Meal scheme

The 2021-’22 budget for the Mid-Day Meal scheme for school children is Rs 11,500 crore – higher than the Rs 11,000 crore allocated in the budget estimate for 2020-’21, but less than the Rs 12,900 crore allocated for the scheme in the revised budget estimate last year.

Worsening hunger

In December 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released the results of the fifth edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), which indicated that there was a rise in malnutrition among children even before the pandemic. The survey data for 2019-’20 showed an increase in child stunting in 13 states, and a rise in the number of underweight children in 16 states.

“This was followed by a whole year of the pandemic, so the situation of hunger and food security in India is now quite weak,” said Dipa Sinha, an activist with the Right to Food Campaign. “Many of the gains we had made in improving child nutrition in the past decade have now stopped, if not reversed.”

Sinha said that funding to anganwadis under the ICDS has always been low, making it difficult for anganwadis to function. “Now with reduced budget allocations it is going to get worse,” she said. “I had expected nutrition and health to be at the top of the agenda in this year’s budget, but it has been a disappointment.”