At a conference on under-nutrition organised by the Ministry of Women and Child Development this week, Union minister Maneka Gandhi said that the government is keen to overhaul the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) and withdraw the provisions of cooked food and rations to children, and pregnant and lactating women, and replace it with cash transfers. She also said the government will shift the focus of the policy from administering food to administering nutrition.
The move is at odds with recommendations by the health ministry, the National Food Security Act and Supreme Court orders. It is, however, in consonance with the NITI Aayog’s recent recommendations from a 114 page document, ‘Nourishing India’, released earlier this month.
Where Gandhi differs with NITI Aayog is on the issue of cash versus kind. She said that she prefers if “nutrient packets” are directly transferred to children and mothers, via the Indian postal service, instead of sending money.
“A direct benefit transfer in the form of money makes no sense, because in Rs 180, there is no way a mother can feed herself or feed the baby for more than three days,” Gandhi said. She said the government procures the raw food at wholesale rates and thus can provide a better value to beneficiaries of the government scheme. She also said that with direct cash transfers, there would be no way of knowing how the money is spent.
However, at a press conference the next day, the secretary of the women and child development ministry, Rakesh Srivastava, said that the government is still considering moving towards cash transfers and an announcement about this is imminent. Before this, he cited the provision of hot cooked meals and take-home rations in anganwadis as a success of his ministry. Sources aware of these developments said that a large scale pilot project on cash transfers is ready in the ministry and is awaiting the last stages of approval. This is in line with the recent recommendations made by the NITI Aayog.
Gandhi’s suggestion is somewhat of a compromise – moving from hot food to sending nutrient packets. NITI Aayog is suggesting scrapping this system entirely and transferring just money. The government is going to roll out a pilot to collect evidence, on NITI Aayog’s recommendations.
The government’s imminent move towards cash transfers is in harmony with NITI Aayog’s ‘Nourishing India’. In the document, the think tank says, “pilots may be initiated in a few districts to test the efficacy of implementing the ICDS supplementary nutrition component through a cash transfer/conditional cash transfer route, (to be transferred directly in the Jan-Dhan account of the mother), aligned to the framework of the National Food Security Act, 2013.” NITI Aayog says that the cash transfers for ICDS’s provision of take-home-rations would be piloted in states which opt themselves to exercise this “strategy option”.
Under the existing ICDS, a pregnant mother and a new-born child can receive rations worth Rs 7125 over 45 months. This works out to Rs 158 per month. The NITI Aayog document does not say if this is the amount they plan on disbursing through cash.
Gandhi’s concerns that procurement for individual beneficiaries will work out more expensive, is not unknown to NITI Aayog, which says in its document that the figure of Rs 158 per month is based on 2011-2012 prices and hasn’t been revised since. On this, NITI Aayog suggests going along with the women and child development ministry’s move to index the rations according to the consumer price index, as in the case of the mid-day meal scheme.
From hot cooked food to processed packed food
While Gandhi disagrees with NITI Aayog on moving towards a complete system of cash transfers in the place of food, she does feel that providing food should be replaced by providing only nutrients. This idea of sending “nutrient packets” is also contentious.
At the same conference this week, she also said that her ministry is developing a new policy that will focus on nutrient packets, rather than on food. “What we have till now is food, which is not even calorie-dense. Secondly, our delivery system has always been dependent on anganwadis. Anganwadi stopped being an effective delivery system 20 years ago,” Gandhi is reported to have said. “Supplementary nutrition is in the form of take-home rations or hot-cooked meals. I want to bring about a complete change, an out-of-box change,” she went on to say.
Like NITI Aayog’s recommendation, Gandhi’s suggestion would also overhaul India’s Supplementary Nutrition programme, which comes under the ICDS scheme. ICDS is centrally sponsored and is targeted at the holistic development of children below the age of six, and at pregnant and lactating mothers. Supplementary nutrition is one of its six main focus areas, besides education and immunisation.
Under the Supplementary Nutrition programme, the government targets children under six months, who are to be monitored for exclusive breast feeding. The government also targets children between six and 36 months, and children between three and six years.
This approach of nutrient packets delivered through the Indian postal service would mean children, pregnant women and lactating women would no longer received fresh, hot and cooked food. They would also not receive uncooked ration, which they can then cook themselves. Instead, they would receive generic nutrient packets with small amounts of nuts, millets and micro nutrients. This would be in line with the women and child development ministry’s aim of giving “nutrient dense food”.
“These moves push the entire system which is currently a decentralised, community-centric model, into a privatised, centralised model. It will homogenise food habits and regional variations around the country,” says Abhay Shukla, national convener of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan. Jan Swasthya Abhiyan also works alongside the Jan Arogya Abhiyan in Maharashtra, which has filed a petition in the Bombay high court, challenging the use of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTF) to treat children with severe acute malnutrition.
He cautions against the centralising of food and nutrition delivery in the country, which is what will happen with nutrient packets as opposed to hot cooked meals. “Accountability for the provision and quality of these services to beneficiaries, is at a state level. To centralise this delivery to a few single private companies, would break any links to this accountability,” says Shukla.