New Delhi: The Ministry of Woman and Child Development has reportedly decided to move away from its policy of providing rations and nutritional supplements to pregnant and lactating women and other women, instead moving to a direct cash transfer.
According to the Indian Express, rations under the Integrated Child Development Services currently reach 6.5 crore beneficiaries – 4.6 crore infants and 1.9 crore women. The supplementary nutrition provided under the scheme in the prenatal and neonatal stage for women and children is meant to prevent child and maternal mortality, child malnutrition and stunting of growth.
However, ministry officials told the newspaper that they have decided to move away from this model and instead provide cash transfers. The new policy will first be taken up on a pilot basis and then extended in phases. “In the first phase, we will cover 300 of the most backward districts where, as per data, the extent of malnutrition and stunting of children is the highest. This will be followed by the remaining districts a year later,” a ministry official told Indian Express. Cooked meals provided to children between the ages of three and six at anganwadis will be continued, he added.
As things stand now, the daily entitlement under the supplementary nutrition scheme is Rs 6 for a child, Rs 7 for pregnant and lactating women, and Rs 9 for a severely malnourished child. These rates were last revised in 2011. According to the Indian Express, the rates will be marginally revised when moving to cash transfers – to Rs 8, Rs 9.30 and Rs 12 respectively.
This proposal, which is part of the ministry’s National Nutrition Mission and will be sent to the cabinet for approval once finalised, is based on a recent NITI Aayog report, which says, “THR [take-home rations] scheme has been plagued with complaints of leakages, poor quality food supplement and vested interests… As has evolved from various deliberations, after consultation with State Governments, 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).”
Moving to cash transfers in government schemes has been a controversial issue in public policy debates, with critics saying that cash does not ensure people will have access to the nutrition they need and is a way for the government to reduce its responsibilities to the people.
Dipa Sinha from the Right to Food Campaign told Indian Express that nutrition supplements are the most effective way of dealing with the lack of availability. “Data from the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau shows that there is a protein-calorie gap in children as they are not consuming enough according to their age. Providing Supplementary nutrition is the best way to ensure that children get the right kind of food. In cash transfers, there is a possibility that the money is spent on other things,” she said. “Moreover, our experience with cash transfers, be it old-age pensions or scholarships for needy children, show that it is never inflation indexed. This would mean that entitlement in the form of cash transfers would fail to keep pace with the rising food prices.”