No hot meals, only the cold shoulder

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Flouting court orders, the Yeddyurappa government is serving packaged food to kids, finds Imran Khan

FOR THE present dispensation in Karnataka, the beleaguered BS Yeddyurappa government, which survives crisis after crisis by the skin of its teeth, a child attending an anganwadi is clearly nobody’s child.

Because Shymala Iqbal, director, Women and Child Welfare Department, said the matter pertains to the secondary education department.

And Kumar Naik, secretary, Secondary Education Department, said it comes under the Child Welfare Department.

Not surprisingly, then, the management of Christy Friedgram Industry (CFI), a private company, did not respond to repeated attempts by TEHELKA to get the company’s side of the story. This is the company that has been handed over the Rs 900-crore per year project of providing mid-day meals to pre-school children. But they are serving packaged food that is also low on nutrients and high on toxic ingredients.

The only people who care about the plight of these children belonging to the poorer section of society seem to be local self-help groups (SHGs) and gram panchayats, who have complained about grave anomalies in the awarding of the contract. This, they say, violates the Supreme Court order of 2004, which specifies that hot meals and not packaged food should be served in mid-day meals.

This point has also been stressed by R Manohar of the NGO South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), who has lodged a complaint with the Lokayukta. Equally important is the fact that the management of anganwadis has been devolved to the gram panchayats by the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, and the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act. The government has reversed its own order to take control of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) that runs the programme, adds Manohar.

There are around 54,260 anganwadis in Karnataka, with 33,80,338 children entitled to a free mid-day meal. For some of these under-privileged children, this is probably their only meal.

Karnataka ranks 11th in the India Hunger Index, with nearly 41 percent of kids underweight

The food supplied by CFI, which manufactures ready-to-eat food at its factories in Tiruchengode (Tamil Nadu) and Attibete (Karnataka), has been found by random surveys to be of low quality, sub-standard and constituted of harmful ingredients such as zinc, a heavy metal, in dangerous proportions. This runs contrary to the company’s self-proclaimed mission of serving the nation to eradicate malnutrition.

That the state cannot afford to be complacent on the child nutrition front is obvious from Karnataka’s 11th rank in the India Hunger Index, which places it in the ‘alarming’ category. Nearly 41 percent of the children are underweight and 38 percent of the children under three years have stunted growth. Almost one-third of them also suffer from chronic malnourishment. In this abysmal situation, the poor quality food being provided to the most marginalised of children under a government scheme aimed at their upliftment spells nothing short of a disaster.

Labels on CFI’s food packets mention a percentage of zinc far above its permissible level. Raghu KC of Pristine Nutrient Consultancy firm says the level of zinc ranges between 6.25 and 9.54 mg/100 g as against the permissible limit of 5 mg/100g prescribed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1955.

According to the ICDS guidelines, the food in anganwadis is required to have certain specified nutrients in certain quantities, which is different for children, for pregnant/lactating mothers and adolescent girls. The examined labels declare ‘fat’ as ‘maximum’. In this context, energy claimed without minimum guarantee of nutrients like fat is erroneous, adds Raghu.

“CFI is providing raw materials in the form of packaged powder that is low in nutrition level. The children refuse to eat it and complain of stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea and headache after consuming it,” says Kavita Ratna, director, Concerned for Working Children (CWC).

CWC along with SCHREM and gram panchayats have launched a state-wide campaign to demand an end to low-quality, sub-standard food being distributed to anganwadis by CFI and to reclaim the right of panchayats to implement the anganwadi programme, with local social monitoring in accordance with the 73rd Amendment.

They have mobilised local resources in 13 districts of the state, namely Bengaluru, Ramnagar, Dharwad, Bellary, Chikmaglur, Bagalkot, Kodagu, Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada, Tumkur, Udupi, Hassan, Gulbarga and Shimoga to locally prepare food for children and have rejected the contractor’s supply.

The anganwadi programme must be seen from the point of view of the children it is meant to serve and be implemented with their best interest as the key consideration. “To ensure this, we strongly feel that the anganwadis should be brought under the purview of the gram panchayats to be monitored and evaluated by them,” adds Ratna.

Nina Nayak, chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, which submitted an 11-page report to the government, says, “During 2010, we got lots of complaints from anganwadis and gram panchayats about the sub-standard food being supplied. The local gram panchayat had categorically stated that they didn’t want the food to be given to their children.”

During the course of the investigation, the commission also found out that the number of children attending anganwadis was far lower than what was being projected in the registers. Which means the mid-day meal scheme could be even more of a moneyspinner for certain people than is obvious at first glance.

Imran Khan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
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