Thane: Food for malnourished children fed to cattle and chicken - a shocking and shameful reality in Maharashtra's Thane district that has sparked outrage across the country. An NDTV investigation found that nutrition supplements meant for underprivileged children in anganwadis are being siphoned by middlemen - allegedly in connivance with government officials - and sold to poultry and dairy farms as feed for livestock. The embarrassing expose has now prompted the Centre to order a probe into this alarming irregularity.
"After viewing the NDTV programme, I have talked to several people, Secretary, Chief Secretary in Maharashtra and asked for a letter from them. I have asked for how it was getting siphoned off and I will take an action only after receiving a report on it," Krishna Tirath, Union Minister for Women and Child Development said.
The minister has reasons to be worried. For, the scheme, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), under which this nexus has been thriving while the children starve, is centrally-sponsored with the state governments tasked to implement it.
A hidden-camera investigation by NDTV uncovered this scam in the Vikramgadh taluka in Thane district. An 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.
"Of course the monitoring system has failed. If you go into the paper it's all there...It is just like taking that book and throwing it out of the window because money is to be made," said Gerson DaCunha, Convener, AGNI.
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.
According to the Maharashtra government, 1,17,493 children have died in the last four years due to malnutrition in the state. In 2011-12 alone, 21,533 children have died due to malnutrition. These numbers have left many stunned and even led to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling malnutrition "a national shame". The Bombay High Court too has 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.
The Opposition, meanwhile, was quick to latch on to the expose to target the Congress-led government both at the Centre and in the state over this mammoth scam. "It's high time the nation sees what is happening in the government schemes that are meant to reach the poor," Piyush Goel, BJP Rajya Sabha MP said.
Story first published:
June 08, 2012 22:45 IST