The midday meal scheme is falling prey to private contractors in the respective states, says a report prepared by the Supreme Court appointed food commissioners on the nutrition supplements for children in anganwadis across Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. The report, submitted to the Supreme Court on November 30, 2012 points out to a tendency among states to favour private contractors to supply supplementary nutrition under the scheme.
As NDTV had reported last month, liquor baron Ponty Chadha's company Great Value Food, monopolised supply of supplementary nutrition program in Uttar Pradesh after the tender process was grossly skewed against local self-help groups and 'mahila mandals'.
In Karnataka, the entire contract was given to just one firm, Christy Fried Gram Industry Ltd in violation of the Supreme Court's directions. The report says Karnataka had implemented what can be termed as a fraudulent decentralised model of the supplementary nutrition program. Christy Friedgram was picked as the 'capacity builder', that was supposed to train people of Self Help Groups (SHGs) to manufacture and supply AREF (Amalysed Rich Energy Food), EF (Energy Food) and FRM (Fortified Raw Material) to Anganwadi centres for a period of two years. In reality, there was little 'capacity building' of the mahila sangha members to manage these centres.
Surprise visits by the state commission for protection of child rights, for its report in 2010, revealed several complaints of children having fallen ill after consuming the ready mix. Instances of diarrhea, vomiting and worm infestation of the ready mix packets were also reported.
The National Institute of Public Co-operation and Child Development (NIPCCD), which analysed the samples, found the food blends unhygienic. The samples also were found to contain the banned colour 'Sunset Yellow FCF' besides coliform. It was only in May this year that the company's contract was finally terminated. Yet, the same company still supplies nutrition supplements in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
In Gujarat, the contract was given to two companies- Kota Dal Mills and Muruliwala Agrotech, Udaipur- that were not even based in Gujarat but in Rajasthan. In fact, Muruliwala was also slapped with a Rs 9 crore fine by the Rajasthan government for poor quality. The state, says the Supreme Court panel report, has violated the order of the Supreme Court that had said contractors must be kept out of Take Home Ration(THR) and Integrated Child Development Scheme.
Tender conditions were such that it kept out self-help groups and Mahila Mandals. One condition for qualifying was that the original manufacturer must be able to provide 'Extruded Micronutrient Fortified Blended Food' as THR (which can only be manufactured by big companies as it needs a fully mechanised process). Yet within minutes of its meeting, the Gujarat authorities clearly listed that 'extruded' is in no way better than 'roasting' method which is not just cheaper but can also be done locally.
Supreme Court Commissioner Harsh Mander told NDTV, "I think it's a really disturbing trend. Globally we have enough experience from countries in Africa and elsewhere about the great danger when for-profit organisations enter the area of child nutrition. In simple terms what we are doing is stealing food from the stomachs of the poorest and smallest child. It is as stark as that and it should be an issue of national outrage. There has been complicity between governments and private contractors. There have been 'not-so-innocent' circulars which are formally trying to show that they are complying with the court directions but are actually subverting them in practice
The report also says that in Maharashtra the tendering condition favoured big contractors by putting in a clause of annual turnover of Rs.1 crore, which virtually knocked out all Mahila Mandals.
The three that did manage to be short-listed, were fronts for contractors. The report also says that the contracts were extended without issuing fresh tendering, in spite of the CBI filing a charge-sheet against two of the contract companies on charges of corruption.
Member of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, Vandana Prasad says, "In our experience we have seen that particularly in the context of malnutrition, the more local communities are involved, the more they are aware of what is being given to their children, the more effective it seems to be. We have been making long term recommendations that Take Home Ration should be produced locally through the use of Self Help Groups and the production should be decentralised that allows livelihoods for the women whose children are malnourished and come to the ICDS centres. It allows local communities to provide some oversight on what is going on.
On the issue of states trying to take refuge in the argument that bigger companies will provide better quality, Vandana Prasad says, "It's a facetious argument. In our experience, the more given to long distance contractors the less quality there is. Even samples sent for checking to labs have found them lacking in essential nutrients."
In his Independence day speech, the Prime Minister called malnutrition a 'national shame', but irregularities like these only show that we are far from tackling it.