Food insecurity

Replacing anganwadis with food sachets will only set India’s nutrition schemes back

The government is likely to announce a new nutrition mission with a bigger role for private companies.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.