One of the greatest paradoxes of India’s growth story is that it co-exists with high levels of child malnutrition. The latest National Family Health Survey found a high percentage (38 per cent) of children stunted and underweight (36 per cent).
For more than 40 years, governments have intervened with food transfers in pre-school Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres. These infant food transfers were mandated as rights first by the Supreme Court and then by the food security Act, 2013.
But a recent decision of the Centre threatens to inflict a body blow to this nutritional lifeline to India’s poorest children. This is by substituting these with either cash or packaged food. It is argued that these would eliminate inefficiencies, leakages and corruption.
There is no evidence that cash transfers are more efficient or less prone to diversion than transfers of food. As special commissioner for the SC in the Right to Food case, I found that social protection programmes based exclusively on cash transfers like pensions were at least as vulnerable to dishonesty and pilfering as food transfer programmes such as the public distribution system and ICDS. But converting children’s food supplies into cash carries many other dangers. International research shows that decisions about cash tend to be made by men in a family. There is little guarantee that men will spend the cash transferred to the family on nutrition for the young child. Cash is also vulnerable to inflation, whereas food transfers are inflation-proof.
The Right to Food Campaign also argues that ‘food distribution plays a critical role in attracting women and children to the anganwadi and ensuring that they receive other essential services related to growth monitoring, nutrition counselling, ante-natal care, etc. Research also shows that the feeding programmes of the ICDS benefit girls and children from marginalised families more and that they have a positive effect on heights of 0-2 year olds”.
Moreover children of different castes and religions, as well as disabled and other children eating together, also extends social education of equality and fraternity to these children.
The case for substituting hot cooked meals in the ICDS centre with packaged food is flawed. Once again, the argument of the government is that this will lessen corruption and higher micro-nutrient provisioning to the children. Behind the demand for packaged food is likely to benefit private companies. Far from eliminating corruption, their entry would only lead to centralisation of this corruption to high levels of decision-making.
Recognising this danger, the SC consistently barred the entry of private suppliers into the supply of supplementary nutrition to children, and instead mandated provisioning by self-help groups of women or mothers’ committees. It cannot be our case that these are also not prone to corruption. But these are at least much more subject to local community scrutiny and accountability, and it is much harder for a committee of mothers to steal from their own children. Supplying hot cooked meals can also have other spin-offs, such as employment to local women, and spurring the local food economy.
This still leaves the argument that food for poor children needs to be scientifically packaged with a balance of micro-nutrients. Most persons who make this argument would be unwilling to substitute milk, eggs and other culturally appropriate food with packaged mixes for their own children. Many nutritionists argue that the best guarantee for a child’s nutrition is balanced and hot-cooked culturally appropriate food. If research establishes that particular diets in certain regions lack specific micro-nutrients, then these alone could be supplied to augment (and not substitute) the hot cooked meals.
Some states have successfully experimented by adding eggs and milk to these, and this indeed is the path down which the government should move. Instead, by converting locally produced food into cash or packaged food, the government will not benefit impoverished children. It will instead advantage MNC companies, and reduce further governments’ welfare spending.
Every third malnourished child in the world is Indian. Every third child in India is malnourished. They deserve much better from their governments than escape paths to the central duty of a caring State to ensure adequate nutritious food in their bellies.