New Delhi: Two out of three children from poor families in India are being ignored by a programme that seeks to provide them supplementary nutrition, a report by a committee appointed by the Supreme Court has said.
While some people blame the state governments for this—the Centre puts up 50% of the funds required for the programme and the states put up the rest—others blame the scheme’s structuring and implementation. The states, it emerges, are not always willing to pay their share, and, so, the utilization of funds for the so-called Supplementary Nutrition Provision (SNP) programme is as low as 25% in some states.
Since the Centre meets its share of the funding, and since states can avail only that proportion of Central funding that they have matched, a 25% utilization means that the states meet only one-fourth of their obligation. The national average is around 50%, which means the states meet half their obligation.
The seventh report of the Commissioners of the Supreme Court, a body set up by the country’s apex court in 2003 while hearing a public interest litigation on right to food filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a civil rights activist group, said that while there were 160 million children sought to be covered by the SNP programme, only 58 million are “SNP beneficiaries.” The SNP programme is part of the integrated child development schemes, one of the government’s flagship development initiatives.
The report by the commissioners—N.C. Saxena and Harsh Mander, both former bureaucrats—lists the compliance of the Centre and the states to the SNP programme.
According to Saxena, the poorest compliance is in states that need the programme the most: “25% of India’s districts are responsible for more than 50% of malnourished children, and these districts are mostly located in the poorer states. Yet, the poorest states and those with the highest levels of under-nutrition have the lowest levels of programme funding, supervisory staff, capacity to utilize funds and monitor progress, resulting in poor outcomes.”
ICDS is the only nation-wide scheme that focuses on the nutrition requirement, immunization and early education needs of the most vulnerable sections of the population—children under six years of age, pregnant and lactating mothers, and adolescent girls.
However, the last national family health survey shows there hasn’t been noticeable improvement in the nutritional status of children in the past eight years. Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the percentage of underweight children under the age of 3 decreased by a mere percentage point, from 47% to 46%. While no data on population growth in this period is available, it is likely that the number of children in this age group actually increased in this period.
“Among other reasons (for the failure of the programme), one is that the money goes to the state treasury and not to the district account directly, unlike NREGA (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). The states then have to make allocations (to districts), which takes time and the process gets delayed and the money lapses, again, unlike NREGA where there is a bank account and there is no lapse of funds,” said Saxena.
According to the report, “most states are spending less than the norm of Rs2 per beneficiary per day. Orissa is spending the least, Rs0.59 per day per beneficiary. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh are also spending much lower than the norm (less than Rs1.50 per day per beneficiary).”
The average for the country per beneficiary, according to the report, turns out to be Rs1.27.
The standards for SNP were set by the Supreme Court in a December 2006 order, which said state governments have to spend at least Rs2 per child per day for supplementary nutrition, Rs2.70 for every severely malnourished child and Rs2.30 for every pregnant woman, nursing mother and adolescent girl.
However, it turns out that the states aren’t always to blame for the failure of the SNP programme and others under the ICDS. Chhattisgarh, for instance, has been following the Supreme Court’s October 2004 order, which said states should not use contractors to implement the scheme. Instead, it said the funds would have to be spent through village communities, self-help groups and mahila mandals (women’s groups) that would buy grain and prepare meals. However, the Centre does not supply grain at concessional rates to states that do this.
“The state is being penalized for following court’s orders. Because the state has stopped contractors from supplying, the Centre has refused foodgrains to the states at BPL (below the poverty line) rates,” said a government official familiar with the development who did not wish to be named.
“Whereas BPL rate is at Rs6 per kg (for rice), the state (government) has to buy the same from the market at Rs11-12 per kg,” said Dipa Sinha, research coordinator at the commissioners office.
The BJP member of Parliament from Chhattisgarh, Karuna Shukla, said the Centre had also reduced the allocation of foodgrains, sugar and kerosene oil meant for above the poverty line and BPL beneficiaries in the state.
“We think the failure of the programme is by design of the Central government. Since we are a BJP-ruled state, the Centre has cut our supplies of essential foodgrains, and forced us to meet the shortfall for such schemes as best we can. But the fallout on Chhattisgarh’s women and children is obviously not going to be positive,” she said.
According to the commissioners report, Chandigarh, Daman and Diu, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand are still using private traders and contractors in defiance of the court’s orders.
The performance of the scheme is even worse in the case of pregnant and lactating mothers. The report said only about 25% of the eligible pregnant women and nursing mothers are being reached by the scheme.
It added: “…not even all or even the majority of SNP distributed can be assumed to actually be contributing to better nutrition for expectant and nursing women, because the majority is in the form of take-home dry rations, which research shows gets into the common household food pool, rather than be specifically allocated...to women.”
(Pragya Singh contributed to this story.)