The Maharashtra government has suspended an anganwadi supervisor and expelled another worker after an NDTV expose which showed that food meant for malnourished children was siphoned off and sold in the market as chicken feed.
An NDTV investigation in June found that middlemen - allegedly in connivance with government officials - sold the nutrition supplements meant for underprivileged children in anganwadis to poultry and dairy farms as feed for livestock. The embarrassing expose prompted the Centre to order a probe into this alarming irregularity.
The NDTV team posed as potential buyers and approached middleman Yashwant Thakre. Once the NDTV team gained his confidence, he showed the team empty packets of the supplements. The contents of the packets had been emptied into larger gunny bags and stored at his house. Mr Thakre told the NDTV team, "This comes from the government talukas. The supply that comes to the taluka, we get hold of with a little bit of adjustment. This belongs to the government. You cannot sell it outside."
Anticipating a large order, Mr Thakre gave the NDTV team samples in packets that were marked 'Not for Sale'.
Maharashtra has 95,380 functioning anganwadis. The state, with the Central government's assistance, spends Rs 1280 crore each year on providing nutrition to children through these anganwadis. In spite of this, there are 80,586 severely underweight children in Maharashtra.
The supplements are sent to anganwadis to ensure that children from economically weaker sections of the population get enough basic nutrition. But due to an absence of proper monitoring, middlemen like Mr Thakre siphon it off to make a quick buck, and deny the children what is rightfully theirs.
Activists also say that this malpractice is not just limited to Thane but spreads across the state.
"There is no community control. It is only a systemic control which is apathetic towards the whole issue because it's not their children who are malnourished. It is the alienation of the entire bureaucracy from the poor is another issue which is affecting all the schemes for food, whether it is PDS (public distribution scheme) or ICDS," said Lina Joshi, the former Director of an NGO, Apnalaya.
Worse, this menace plagues other states too. "Similar problems have also been reported from other states. The problem is because there is no supervision of the ICDS system," said NC Saxena, Member, National Advisory Council.
The Maharashtra government's action came on a day when it released on the assembly floor malnourishment figures for the state which shockingly show that over 24,000 children died in the past one year.
According to the government, there are there are over 10 lakh malnourished children in the state, and over 1.24 lakh of these are severely malnourished. Governor K Sankaranarayanan too discussed the issue with Minister of Women and Child Development Varsha Gaikwad, and other officials of the department. The Bombay High Court has already slammed the state for its apathy and inaction. But even as the government fights against malnutrition, middlemen, allegedly with the collusion of some government authorities, ensure that the children go hungry.