Activists Slam Reducing Budget Allocation for Critical Women and Child Nutrition Schemes Amid COVID

Allocation for children, who constitute 40% of the population, is the lowest in a decade; new schemes make comparisons difficult, and real term expenditure is down on most heads.

New Delhi: The right to food campaign activists on Wednesday slammed the Union Budget 2021 for cutting down allocations for critical nutrition schemes such as integrated child development services (ICDS), midday meals and maternity entitlements, despite there being “alarming evidence of extreme food insecurity” ever since the national lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

Speaking at a press conference organised at the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) in New Delhi, the activists highlighted how the allocations have been reduced despite recent data suggesting that the impact of the lockdown was still lingering among the informal sector workers and their families.

On health and nutrition

Dipa Sinha of the campaign said that “children and child malnutrition have once again been neglected in this current budget that was presented on February 1. Despite this being a longstanding issue in the country, over many years we have seen that children under six, pregnant and lactating women and adolescent girls, who constitute the critical age group to address the issue of malnutrition, have been invisible and been neglected.”

She said, “There was some progress, particularly after 2005-06 and following the Supreme Court orders and with the ICDS getting universalised. The data between National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 3 and 4 shows a 10 percentage point decline in stunting. This is good, but too slow compared with the global standards. But, between NFHS 4 and 5, out of the list of 22 states and UTs, we see that in most there is either a stagnation or there has been a decline in cases of malnutrition.”

Giving out the NFHS findings on stunting, wasting and undernutrition, she added that in the last one year due to the pandemic, the lockdown and economic distress, the incomes in the informal sector have not come back. A number of primary studies show that this has resulted in increased hunger and food insecurity. Also, that did not last only up to to the lockdown in April-May, but it still continues.

Also read: Child Nutrition Levels in India Worsened Over Last Five Years, Finds NHFS Survey

The right to food campaign conducted a survey on food insecurity along with a number of other groups, between the period of October and December 2020.

Giving out the brief findings of this survey, Sinha said, this survey focused on poor and marginalised communities. They reported that their level of food consumption – cereals, rice, wheat and pulses – in October was even less than what they were consuming pre-lockdown. “So we know that there is a situation of hunger and food insecurity. We know that the gains that we were making on malnutrition have not been continuing. And because of this overall economic slowdown, we hoped that this budget would take some bold steps to address this problem of child malnutrition and contribute to reducing childhood hunger,” she said.

But, she added, it was very disappointing to see that the allocation has reduced for most of the schemes that address these problems.

In the beginning of her speech, the finance minister appeared positive because she announced a flagship programme ‘Poshan 2.0’ despite ‘Poshan 1.0’ being quite a failure. “So it seemed that some more money would be put into the schemes. But what it actually means is that while earlier there was an umbrella ICDS, now two new terms have been brought in – Saksham and Samarthya – and basically the schemes have been clubbed together.”

Also read: Does Mission Poshan 2.0 Have the Ammunition It Will Need to Be Successful?

So, Sinha said, it is not easy to compare the Anganwadi budget of last year to this year. “But what we can compare is the Anganwadi budget of last year with the Anganwadi plus Saksham budget of this year. However, even that has declined.”

Reduced allocation for essential nutrition schemes

The budget allocation for Anganwadi services last year was Rs 20,532 crore whereas the allocation for Saksham, which along with Anganwadi includes the National Nutrition Mission, is now Rs 20,105 crore. So, there has been an actual allocation of over Rs 400 crore less for a programme which now clubs three other schemes along with Anganwadi, Sinha added. A lot could have been done to improve supplementary nutrition if more money was given.

What is also alarming is that if you look at the data on the number of beneficiaries being covered under Anganwadi, then that too has also come down consistently in the last five years, she added.

Another scheme implemented by the Ministry of Women and Child Development is the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY). This was started after the National Food Security Act (NFSA) included an entitlement of at least Rs 6,000 for all pregnant and lactating women. Considered path-breaking, for the first time it provided universal maternal entitlement for supporting women during pregnancy and the six months of exclusive breast-feeding. This again has been clubbed with Samarthya, Sinha said.

A woman and her child wait to receive food during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of COVID-19 in Kolkata, April 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The allocation for PMMVY last year was Rs 2,500 crore but the allocation for the clubbed scheme this year is Rs 2,522 crore, she added. “So it would not be enough to cater to all the eligible beneficiaries. Also, while the Act says ‘all women’, the scheme only covers the ‘first birth’. And while the Act calls for providing Rs 6,000, the scheme only provides Rs 5,000.”

In the midday meal scheme, there is a nominal increase in the allocation from Rs 11,000 crore last year to Rs 11,500 crore this year, she further added. “But in real terms that is not enough to make up for inflation.” Here too the number of beneficiaries have declined over the years.

If we don’t put funds behind these programmes, there is no point in announcing new schemes every year.

Last year, hardly 50% of the allocation was spent because the Anganwadis and schools remained closed for most of the year due to COVID-19. So, this year, one expected an even bigger push, she further added.

Also read: India Ranks 94 Among 107 Countries in Global Hunger Index 2020

Nothing much for the informal sector, and other vulnerable groups

Jean Dreze, visiting professor at Ranchi University and food rights campaigner, said this year’s budget reflects the central government’s denial of the livelihood crisis that continues to devastate the informal sector in India. According to a survey by Azim Premji University, he said, informal sector workers today are still earning about half of what they were earning before the lockdown.

“For many of them the lockdown continues in one form or the other – the passenger trains are still not running, the schools and anganwadis are closed, jails are not accessible for visits, the district courts are functioning at half capacity. All kinds of services and facilities are still not functional and that affects huge sectors of the economy,” he added.

Informal sector workers rush to board a train in Thane. Photo: PTI

This situation called for bold measures that served the dual purpose of putting money in people’s hands and stimulating the economy. “But,” Dreze lamented, “few measures of that kind can be found in the budget.”

There was also a need to pay special attention to vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, the elderly and others. Children constitute 40% of the population, he said. The campaign pointed out that this year the share of children in the budget was the lowest in 10 years at 2.46% as against 4.76% in 2012-13.

The budgetary allocation for ICDS, maternity benefits, Pradhan Mantri Gramodaya Yojana (PMGY) and even school education has been cut. Likewise, the allocation for the National Social Assistance Programme, the lifeline for the elderly, has been copy-pasted from last year’s, he said.

Also read: This Year’s Budget Is Critical to Ensure a Comprehensive Nutrition Response

Massive budget cut for ICDS, again

Also, Dreze pointed out that this is the second time after 2015-16 that the ICDS budgetary allocation has been cut. “That was the first full budget of the NDA government and there were massive cuts. Also, they were only partially reversed.” In real terms, he said, the ICDS budget was 25% lower than 2014 despite the population growth, and for midday meals, it is lower in real terms by 33%.

“In 2014, the ICDS budget was around Rs 16,000 crore. At today’s prices that corresponds to nearly Rs 23,000 crore. The Saksham budget, which includes ICDS, is around Rs 20,000 crore only out of which ICDS will get around Rs 17,000 crore.”

Likewise, he said, for the midday meal scheme, in 2014 the budget was around Rs 12,000 crore and now it is Rs 11,500 crore. As such it is less than what it was seven years ago while in real terms as per that rate it should have been at least Rs 17,000 crore.

So there is a big attack on these programmes and that has resulted in lower coverage of ICDS services, which have been declining year after year, Dreze said.

He added that the campaign, along with others, can take some credit that India finally has some semblance of a social security system for the informal sector, consisting of six pillars: public distribution system, MGNREGS employment guarantee scheme, pension schemes, maternity entitlements, ICDS and midday meals.

Barring NREGA and PDS, the other four have been severely hit by the cuts in budgetary allocations, he said.

Midday meal scheme in Rajasthan. Credit: Reuters

Schemes such as the midday meal, if implemented properly, can help tackle child malnourishment . Credit: Reuters

‘Blatant disregard for malnutrition, children’

Community pediatrician Dr Vandana Prasad, who is also associated with the campaign and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, said it was shocking that the budget was so blatant in its disregard for malnutrition and children. She said UNICEF and WHO have been predicting rise in child mortality in India and across the globe, and yet the response to data showing deterioration due to the pandemic has been met with cuts and deduction in budgetary allocation. “What does it say about the intent of the government?”

Focussing on ICDS, she said, “It is not sufficiently understood that the Anganwadi system is the only village-level platform for all schemes, programmes and interventions for women and child health and nutrition. It provides last mile connectivity to whatever you may plan.”

She said there are 1.4 million anganwadis across the country and those are still not fully universalised. “There is only about 50-60% coverage for children. While the delivery of the scheme rests on the workers,” she asked, “what has been done for them.”

“They are still not treated as workers despite their working on pandemic programmes, COVID programmes and even election programmes. They have not received any paisa in this budget whereas Rs 3 lakh crore extra have been earmarked for other government functionaries.”