Dying malnourished in the IT hub

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Killed by neglect Six-year-old Meghala’s death from malnutrition last July exposed the miserable state of the ICDS programme in Bengaluru
Killed by neglect Six-year-old Meghala’s death from malnutrition last July exposed the miserable state of the ICDS programme in Bengaluru

The people of Karnataka are no longer shocked by news of children dying from malnutrition in the interiors of the state, where one child on an average dies every day due to lack of adequate nutrition. However, there was a time when no one could have anticipated that children living in the heart of the it hub Bengaluru could die from malnutrition. That was before the grim reality hit the headlines last year.

No wonder, the revelation led to a huge public uproar, forcing the state government to promise measures to ensure that no child in the city dies from inadequate nutrition in the future. Six months later, however, nothing has changed on the ground. Not only did the state fail to live up to its promise, it actually went two steps back and shockingly rolled back what it had been delivering earlier.

Anganwadis (‘courtyard shelters’), started by the Central government in 1975 under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, are supposed to play a key role in combating hunger and malnutrition among poor children. But, according to activists and parents, mid-day meals were not served in any of the anganwadis in Bengaluru for three months from January to March. Activists allege that this led to the death of three children in Devarajeevanahalli, better known as DJ Halli, which is a large contiguous locality comprising several slums inhabited by low-income families in the northern part of the city. Muslims constitute a majority of the around 1 lakh population of DJ Halli.

When TEHELKA sought to verify the claims of the activists, a Primary Health Centre (PHC) official confirmed these deaths, but could not divulge more details as she was on leave.

Incidentally, DJ Halli is the same locality where the first case of death by malnutrition in Bengaluru had come to light last July. Meghala, the six-year-old child who died, reportedly weighed just 12 kg. A number of activists and civil society groups had then taken up the issue, which was also highlighted in the media. This had drawn the attention of the then newly-formed Siddaramaiah-led Congress government to the miserable plight of the people living in the area.

On 29 August 2013, Karnataka Minister for Women and Child Development Umashree convened a meeting in her office, where several decisions were made on the steps to be taken to combat malnutrition. Among these was a plan to open 40 new anganwadis in DJ Halli, a special drive to provide BPL cards to the families of all the severely malnourished children, and a Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre at the government hospital in DJ Halli. Nine months after the meeting, not a single anganwadi has been opened by the state. Not even a building has come up. Responding to a Right to Information (RTI) query, ministry officials said that they are still in the process of recruiting teachers for the anganwadis. The minister was unavailable for comment.

“The state government is yet to fulfil the promises it made to the people of DJ Halli last year,” says Narasimha, a Bengaluru- based activist of the civil society group Alternative Law Forum.

Bengaluru has been divided into three zones for the purpose of administering the anganwadis across the city. While the central and northern zones are managed by the state government directly, anganwadis in the rest of city — referred to as Sumangali Sevashram — are run by a private contractor with aid from the government. Currently, there are around 1,000 anganwadis in the three zones, and the estimated number of beneficiaries exceeds 1 lakh.

On an average, the government spends around Rs 6 per day per child on mid-day meals, and around Rs 8 per day on children classified as Severely Acute Malnourished (SAM). “The anganwadis also serve mid-day meals to pregnant women and lactating mothers, on whom the government spends around Rs 5 per day,” informs Narasimha. The response to an RTI query filed by Narasimha revealed that the state government has earmarked a monthly budget of Rs 80 lakh for the central zone, Rs 70 lakh for the northern zone and Rs 40 lakh for the rest of the city. “So, why were mid-day meals not served at the angwanwadis from January to March?” asks Narasimha. “The government is yet to give an answer to that. And most importantly, as the food was not served, where did the money go? The women and child development department is sitting on a financial scam in the distribution of midday meals.”

Officials of the department brushed aside these questions, arguing that the food was not supplied only for a few weeks. However, they did not reveal the exact number of weeks when no mid-day meals were distributed. N Muni Reddy, joint director, ICDS, told TEHELKA, “Midday meals could not be distributed because of some gap with the food and civil supplies department.”

When contacted, CS Joshi, deputy general manager for Karnataka of the Food Corporation of India, denied that there was any such gap. “We are supplying for many schemes floated by the Union government under the Food Security Act. And we do not have any shortage. If they (the women and child development department) are finding some shortage, it is because of their internal problems,” says Joshi.

TEHELKA found out that three officials functioning under the women and child development department, including Deputy Director (ICDS) Ramesh Halabhavi, have been suspended recently. Joint Director Reddy acknowledged that the suspension orders were issued because “the three officials did not properly supervise the distribution of food”.

Surprisingly, however, even after a month since the suspensions, the department is yet to form an inquiry committee. Reddy says the department is looking for a retired judge to head the inquiry and the department’s secretary will soon take a call on that. But he refused to reveal if there was any misappropriation of funds.

The condition of children’s nutrition in the Bengaluru slums reflects the situation across large parts of Karnataka. According to a 2011 report titled ‘Child Malnutrition in Karnataka’, prepared by lawyer Clifton D’Rozario, state adviser for the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, 44 percent of the children under five years are too short for their age, indicating that they have been undernourished for some time; 18 percent are too thin for their height, likely to be caused by inadequate food intake for a short time or a recent illness; and 38 percent are underweight, which takes into account both chronic and acute under-nutrition.

Besides the worrying figures, activists are also critical of the government’s plans to hand over distribution of midday meals to private players. In fact, the government had begun implementing it in 2012, when the mining giant Vedanta was given the responsibility to distribute mid-day meals to 2 lakh children in four districts. Recently, the government decided to involve private companies in mid-day meal distribution in three more districts — Tumkur, Dharwad and Bangalore Rural. Activists cite a Supreme Court judgment of 2004 to point out that the involvement of private players as middlemen in food distribution schemes is a violation of the law and add that such initiatives have led to disastrous results, including corruption.

For instance, in 2012, a probe by the Karnataka Lokayukta had revealed that officials of the women and child development department were siphoning off funds meant for mid-day meals in connivance with the contractor, a company called Christy Friedgram Industry.

Even as activists and the government argue over the right way to combat malnutrition, the spectre of malnourished children continues to haunt parts of the state, including the slums in the capital.

imran@tehelka.com

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