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NEW DELHI: The Centre runs nine distinct programmes dedicated to fight hunger and malnutrition. Managed by five ministries, thousands of crores of rupees are spent on these schemes every year. They include ICDS, MDM and MGREGS. Despite 60 directives from the Supreme Court since 2001, the implementation of plans likes ICDS, midday meal scheme and MGREGS have been lax. The last National Family Health Survey revealed that 46% of infants are malnourished and 49% of women are aneaemic.
Reports by various agencies show that India is not doing enough to fight hunger. So, what is happening to all the government programmes? And, more importantly, why is it that despite detailed orders and deadlines by SC, the condition on the ground remains unchanged? Some answers are provided by surveys done in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal by the SC commissioners, who are helping the court track the implementation of its orders.
Last year, the Bariha family of Buromal village in Bolangir district, Orissa was wiped out in just three months. One-year-old Gundru and 3-year-old Siba were the first to die. Their mother Bimla died a few days later. A month later, her husband Jhintu, an indebted labourer, succumbed. Two months later Jhintu's 70-year-old mother Minji too died. Cause of death: malnutrition. Now, only seven-year-old Ramprasad and his 80-year-old grandfather Champi survive.
This year, just a few months ago, media reported on how Ratan Bhuria, a tribal with no land, no work and no education, stumbled into the district hospital at Jhabua, MP, carrying his semi-conscious children, 2-year-old Jogdiya and 4-year-old Nani. This was his final effort to save them – they were starving.
Why did the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme – meant to provide 300 calories of food to every child up to six years of age – not reach these children? Studies carried out by the Supreme Court commissioners' office in six states show how this premier scheme is faltering and stumbling in distant villages.
The ministry of women & child development admits that only about 59% of the eligible children are receiving nutrition supplements through the 11 lakh anganwadi centers across the country. In the last report, the SC Commissioners reveal that there is a catch in this data. The ministry figures are for areas where anganwadi centers exist and they cover only about 80% of the country's children. The remaining 20% are neither covered nor form part of the survey. If you take all the eligible children into account, only about 47% of children receive nutrition supplements.
But there is more to the story. Even where the records show a fair or improving trend, things are dodgy at the ground level. For instance, the state studies tried to find out the number of days that an anganwadi actually distributes food to children – and came up with chilling results.
In MP, the survey shows children were given food for just 130 days in a year, while in Bihar and Assam there were 180 feeding days on an average. Although Orissa with 240 and West Bengal with 242 were far more advanced, they were still lagging in the mandatory requirement of at least 300 feeding days a year.
In most cases, the survey found a discrepancy between the official record of an anganwadi's operation and the villagers' testimony. For instance, in Assam, the official records said the centers functioned for 19 days per month on average, but villagers' version added up to only 12 days.
Food is a daily need. You can't skip nutrition for a week and then resume. And, as several experts point out, inadequate or lack of nutrition at an early age permanently impair physical and mental capabilities. The state surveys dig deeper to find out why distribution of food is irregular and insufficient. Several factors emerged – shortage of staff, irregular supply of raw material, very irregular financial flows, excessive workload on the workers, insufficient funds for infrastructure, and, of course, corruption.
In Orissa, 28% of the posts in the ICDS programme are lying vacant while in West Bengal, 22% are vacant. In West Bengal, there are 12,082 anganwadis with no worker. This means that a worker from a nearby centre divides her time between two centres – thus giving insufficient attention to both. In Assam, with 37% posts vacant, the situation is grim.
Raw material for preparing the food for children is delivered very erratically in all states. The survey found that half of the anganwadi centres in Orissa reported irregular supply causing disruption in food distribution running into months. In West Bengal, 39% of the anganwadis did not get regular supply.
The condition of anganwadi centres, where the tiny tots are supposed to spend half a day playing and getting fed, is abysmal in most cases. Many centres are run from private premises – that is, verandahs, courtyards, small hovels and rooms taken on rent. The proportion of centres running out of government premises – usually schools – varies from just 13% in Bihar and 26% in Bengal to 61% in MP and 58% in Orissa. Just a quarter of the anganwadis in Assam and about a third in MP and Bengal had provision for drinking water. Only about a fifth of them had toilets in the surveyed states, barring Bihar, which managed with just 3%. All this discourages families from sending their kids to a centre and puts a huge strain on the anganwadi worker.
The bottom line is this: hunger, with all its tragic consequences, will persist in India, as long as the nuts and bolts of grandiose programmes are not checked out.