New Delhi: The Ministry of Women and Child Development has said there is no plan of replacing hot cooked meals, which the government currently provides to children between the ages of three and six years, by either uncooked food such as ‘nutrient packets’, ready-to-cook food or cash.
“There has been a lot of discussion on this. But there is no plan to remove hot cooked meals. It is a part of the National Food Security Act,” said women and child development ministry secretary Rakesh Srivastava. “The role of anganwadis in cooking hot meals for children and women is specified in Section 5 and 6 of the Act. The central ministry provides only guidelines to the states. But states cannot violate the Act. If they do, they can be taken to court,” he said.
This clarification follows reports that the government was in fact moving towards this. The indications on this came from comments made recently by Union minister Maneka Gandhi at a conference, as well as tenders floated in Maharashtra to replace the extensive network of freshly-cooked meals there with ready-to-cook packed food. The ministry has also been considering providing ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) for children with severe acute malnutrition, which has been vetoed by the health ministry. The women and child development ministry then advised states to also backtrack on this, which led to some like Maharashtra cancelling their tenders for RUTF.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development is the nodal ministry for the provision of food, both cooked and uncooked, to infants, children and pregnant and lactating women. This is done through the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which is a centrally-sponsored scheme.
The secretary also said, “The Act, as well as various Supreme Court orders, are very clear that self-help groups and mahila mandals are the first choice to provide food to children and women under the ICDS. Only if there is no infrastructure for this can the government consider moving towards private contractors. But the first preference is to be given to women’s groups who cook this food in the anganwadis.”
At a recent conference on undernutrition organised by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi said she wants to replace the existing policy of administering food to one that administers nutrition. For this, her suggestion was sending ‘nutrient packets’ to beneficiaries via the Indian postal service.
“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 said. “What we came up with is a change in policy which is, we stop thinking of this as giving food. Khana nahi dena (We give nutrition),” she also said. The packets would be a dry mixture of peanuts, millets and micro-nutrients which can be had with liquids like water, juice, milk or lassi.
The state of Maharashtra in July had floated tenders to provide packed food to three million children who currently are meant to be receiving cooked food. This is a Rs 575-crore business and Maharashtra invited bids for five years, in all 34 rural and tribal sectors. Besides children, this would impact about 45,000 small-scale women’s groups who currently are employed in this network.
Government is still discussing replacing food with cash
On the issue of the government replacing food with cash, the women and child development ministry secretary said that deliberations are on about a cash transfer system that would be conditional. He said the government will be making an announcement about this soon. “The recommendations here need to be thrashed out because if we did this, it would be a major policy change,” he added.
As reported by The Wire, Gandhi’s views clash with the NITI Aayog which has recommended in a new 114-page report, ‘Nourishing India‘, that the entire ICDS be overhauled and the government should try out pilot projects to dispense only cash instead of food. The document is not clear whether it wants to do away with cooked food or uncooked food, both of which are provided in the ICDS. The document also does not say what amounts of money they plan on sending out. At present, the government through its centralised procurement spends about Rs 158 per person per month, over 45 months. The Indian Express reported that the cash transfers in the pilot projects would replace the uncooked rations which beneficiaries get under ICDS.
While pointing out that the Union government is very keen on a direct benefit transfer, Gandhi spoke out against cash transfers at the conference on undernutrition. “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,” she said. She also said that with cash transfers, the government would have no way of knowing how the money is being spent. A conditional cash transfer, as the secretary mentioned, could provide the government some idea on how it is being spent.
The NITI Aayog, however, has written in its recent document that the government should initiate pilots to check the effectiveness of cash transfers, whether conditional or not conditional, through Jan Dhan accounts. Sources told The Wire that a plan on this is ready and is awaiting its final approvals. The Indian Express also reported that the pilot project is expected to cover 300 backward districts where malnutrition and stunting is the highest.