The Government of India is expected to announce a National Nutrition Mission in December this year. Some glimpses of what this mission will include were revealed in a recent news item in the Economic Times. The focus seems to be on centralising production of take home rations given to young children and pregnant or lactating women with a minimal role for anganwadi centres and workers.

All other roles played by the anganwadi centres including growth monitoring, nutrition and health counselling seem to have been ignored as the reports suggest that anganwadi workers are expected to become redundant once the centralised nutrition sachets are made available. The unsaid aim seems to be ensuring a share for the private sector in the huge allocations made for supplementary nutrition. Putting central and state shares together this is around Rs. 20,000 crores per anum.

Almost 70 years after Independence and more than two decades of high growth, almost 40% of children in the country are still malnourished – that is they are stunted or have low height for their age. Successive governments have failed in putting in place a comprehensive and coherent strategy in place address the problem of malnutrition.

Malnutrition is a complex problem with multiple determinants ranging from inadequate food consumption, ineffective health care, poor sanitation and drinking water and inappropriate child care practices underlying which are poverty, insecure livelihoods, unequal gender relations and hopeless public services. One of the main interventions to address malnutrition is the provision of supplementary nutrition through anganwadi centres under the Integrared Child Development Scheme commonly abbreviated as ICDS.

Slow progress

For more than ten years now, we have been debating where the food given to children in anganwadi centres should come from. In 2006, the Supreme Court passed stringent orders directing states to ensure that every habitation in rural and urban areas had an anganwadi centres and that these centres catered to every children under six years of age, every pregnant and lactating woman and every adolescent girl. The Supreme Court had passed similar orders in 2001 and took serious notice of the fact that despite its interventions almost two-thirds of the country was not covered by the ICDS programme. The court also issued orders in 2004, reiterated consequently in 2006 and 2009, banning private contractors from the supply of food to anganwadi centres, urging governments to give priority to local village groups, mahila mandals, self-help groups and so on. This was based on the understanding that centralised private contracts was at the root of corruption leakages in the supplementary nutrition programme delivery.

With the more than doubling of the ICDS programme after 2006 from about 6.5 lakh anganwadi centres to almost 14 lakh centres and the greater importance being given to malnutrition, the potential profits to be made from the business of supplying take home rations to young children also increased manifold.

At the same time, with the Supreme Court banning private contractors more ingenious ways were to be found to milk these profits. While a few states such as Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and more recently Rajasthan did move to decentralised systems of production of take home rations, most states continued with centralised arrangements often in violation of the Supreme Court orders.

Various violations

Therefore, in Maharashtra three “fake” Mahila Mandals which were propped up by the same people who were earlier involved in supply for take home rations through private companies were given the contract for take home rations for the entire state. Reports by the Supreme Court commissioners on the Right to Food exposed this, following which the state was forced to take some action towards putting in place alternative arrangements. In spite of the damning reports of the Supreme Court commissioners and media pressure that followed, the business-political-bureaucracy nexus in the state still remains powerful with repeated attempts at derailing the process of decentralisation with the entire issue of who should be given the contracts for supply of food for anganwadis in Maharashtra now being embroiled in a number of court cases in the High Courts of Aurangabad and Bombay as well as the Supreme Court.

More recently, a huge scam in the supply of take home rations in Madhya Pradesh was brought to light by the media and taken up in a big way in the state assembly. Although the state was supposedly buying the take home rations from the Madhya Pradesh state food corporation, it was found that the production and distribution was in turn being sub-contracted to private companies which had huge profit margins for supplying this food.

Uttar Pradesh in the past has been pulled up by the National Human Rights Commission for the corruption in its supply of food to anganwadis, a state where the infamous Ponty Chadha family and their numerous subsidiaries have been given charge of supplying take home rations to the entire state.

While the responsibility of supply of supplementary nutrition is that of the state governments, the central government ­– under both the present and previous dispensations ­– has been playing a dubious role as well. Through a series of circulars and notices, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has been putting pressure on state governments to follow certain norms for supply of take home rations, meeting which basically requires centralised production.

When Renuka Choudhury was the minister, following much pressure from the civil society and the media, this issue had to be taken all the way to the Cabinet where it was finally decided that children between three and six years of age in anganwadi centres must be given hot cooked meals for those who come to the centre and decentralised methods of production must be put in place for take home rations for younger children. It is once again time for the highest authorities to collectively intervene in favour of children and their nutrition.

The current women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi wrote to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh last week asking him to put on hold his state’s decision to withdraw all centralised contracts and put in place a system of decentralised production. This is part of a series of letters that Gandhi has written to various state governments in the past couple of years derailing all attempts at decentralisation. Furthermore, Economic Times reports that Patanjali is being approached for the production of sachets. Do we need more evidence on whose benefit these proposals are for?

The author is an assistant professor of economics at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University.