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Reduced allocation for nutritional schemes to impact health of women, children: Experts

Indian women, especially those working in precarious informal sectors, are at the sharp end of what economists and opposition politicians describe as a jobs crisis in India (AP)Premium
Indian women, especially those working in precarious informal sectors, are at the sharp end of what economists and opposition politicians describe as a jobs crisis in India (AP)

Union Budget 2021 has actually reduced allocations for crucial social security schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), midday meals, maternity entitlements, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)

NEW DELHI : Insufficient funds allocated towards crucial food and nutrition schemes in the Union Budget 2021-22 would impact the health of women, children and the most vulnerable in the country, public health experts cautioned.

The experts pointed out that the Union Budget 2021 has actually reduced allocations for crucial social security schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), midday meals, maternity entitlements, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

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The revised budget estimates for 2020-21 show that ICDS and Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) suffered greatly because of the lockdown and closing of Anganwadi centres. The revised estimate for PMMVY ( 1,300 crore) is barely half of what was allocated for the programme for 2020-21.

“That itself was low as the scheme covers only the first child, with a reduced benefit of 5000, while the National Food Security Act entitles all pregnant women to a maternity benefit of at least 6000 per child," said Dipa Sinha is Assistant Professor (Economics) at Ambedkar University.

“In the 2021-22 budget, ICDS and PMMVY have been clubbed with other schemes, but comparing like with like, it is clear that both programmes have been undermined. The budget allocation for midday meals is pretty much the same in 2021-22 as in 2020-21, and if anything, lower in real terms, she said adding that same goes for National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) with literally no change and is also lower in real terms.

The budget includes an allocation of 1,000 crores for the women and children of Assam and Bengal’s tea gardens, but no details have been provided on how this money is to be utilized.

“It is also disappointing to see that there is no announcement in the budget to expand the Public Distribution System (PDS) to include those who are excluded from the National Food Security Act (NFSA), to update the population estimates to calculate NFSA coverage, or to include items such as edible oil and pulses," said Sinha.

“While it seems like the food subsidy has increased, this is only a reflection of the central government finally paying the FCI for the grains distributed over the last few years," she said.

The recent Hunger Watch survey indicated, even after the lockdown was lifted, distress among marginalized communities continues, with people having lower incomes and reduced food consumption.

Jean Dreze, Economist and Professor at Ranchi University argued that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was crucial in providing some wage employment in rural areas. There is an urgent need to increase the guarantee of work of 200 days per year and also to increase the wage rates. But the 2021-22 allocation for NREGA is only 73,000 crores (as compared to the revised estimate of 1,15,000 for 2020-21), he said.

Dreze recommended that the PDS should be universalized. Pulses and edible oil should also become legal entitlements under the PDS, and should be procured at the Minimum Support Price (MSP).

"Hot cooked meals under ICDS and midday meals should be revived immediately. The budgets for these programmes should make adequate provisions for the inclusion of eggs in the meals. Hot cooked meals should extend to children under three years of age through crèches and to pregnant and lactating women through community kitchens," said Dreze.

Public health experts said that the health and well-being of women and children are critical in the economic development of the nation.

"We must not lose our focus on maternal, child and adolescent health, including family planning. Prioritising social sector spending on women and young people’s health is central to all our futures. It will spur economic growth and recovery by ensuring a healthy population and ensure that the current health crisis does not increase existing gender disparities in access to affordable and quality healthcare," Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India, a public health, policy and development strategies firm.

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