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Food worth crores for poor children siphoned off in Maharashtra, finds Supreme Court panel

Food worth crores for poor children siphoned off in Maharashtra, finds Supreme Court panel
Mumbai In a grim reminder of the continuing misery of the poor in India, a report by a Supreme Court panel has revealed widespread irregularities in the production and supply of food for malnourished children in Maharashtra. While private contractors illegally supplied food and made massive profits, the poor children, who were entitled to the benefit under the anganwadi scheme, were fed stale and low-quality food.

The shocking revelations are part of a report submitted by the Supreme Court Commissioner who looked into widespread irregularities in the Maharashtra Anganwadi Yojana. As per the directives laid out by the top court, private contractors cannot be roped in for production and supply of take-home ration (THR). The panel's findings reveal that tenders were awarded to three mahila mandals or women's associations that were meant to supply food and other nutritional supplements for children under the anganwadi scheme. However, the associations formed their own separate committees, which in turn delegated the work to five private firms - a clear violation of rules laid down by the Supreme Court These five companies, the report says, allegedly made massive profits by providing sub-standard food to poor children.

The latest report is a further indicator of the deteriorating social index in Maharashtra - the state already suffers from the ignominy of having one of the highest number of deaths from malnutrition in the country. The alleged scam should also come as a worry for the Congress-led government in Maharashtra as well as at the Centre as the anganwadi project is part of the larger Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme which is centrally-sponsored with the state governments tasked to implement it.

The report by the Supreme Court-appointed panel is also an extension of the deep-rooted corruption in the scheme that NDTV had earlier highlighted in June. A hidden-camera investigation in the Thane district had revealed how nutrition supplements meant for underprivileged children in anganwadis were being siphoned off by middlemen - allegedly in connivance with government officials - and sold to poultry and dairy farms as feed for livestock.

But not much has improved given the trends that suggest rising cases of malnutrition and starvation among children below the age of six in various cities and towns across Maharashtra. In Mumbai itself, a quarter of the children below six years of age weighed at anganwadis, according to statistics, were found to be underweight.

NDTV visited one such area in the city where 50 percent of the children are severely malnourished. Rafiquenagar in Chembur, that is one of Mumbai's eastern suburbs, is one of the poorest in the city, largely dominated by slums. With most families struggling for even one basic meal in a day, the infant mortality rate in the area is also among the highest in the city.

Worse, there is just one anganwadi in Rafiquenagar that caters to nearly 800 families. Hence, the meals provided to the children there are never enough. Extra nutritional supplements for malnourished children also almost never arrive. The problems for the families are compounded by the fact that the slum is demolished once every couple of months, owing to the settlement being illegal.

"We have to get clearance from the Central government to set up more centres under the ICDS scheme in the area as the area has not been regularized," says Maharashtra's Women and Child Development Minister, pleading helplessness.

But the ever-growing cases of deaths among children in the state arising out of malnutrition suggests that little has been done by the government to check this menace.
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