The Politics of Welfare

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Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

It is a fight that has raged on for a decade. It is a battle to ensure that poor children and deprived pregnant and lactating women get a nutritious diet. It is a war to rightfully implement the grandiose central scheme, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). It is a cause, in which the civil society and Supreme Court (SC) had to intervene regularly to prevent the central and state regimes from side-stepping, bypassing and over-ruling the rules that were set by the apex court.

Although the original intentions of the policy makers were honest — they wanted poor children and mothers to eat well —ICDS was derailed because of obvious reasons like corruption, inefficiency and non-governance. In most states, it became a case of policy- and implementation-capture; powerful interest groups appropriated the scheme, and took it away from the locals. Politicians, bureaucrats and private contractors shared the central booty amongst themselves.

The core issue is that at the end of the day local communities at the village level should manage their own destinies. They need to decide how to run the welfare schemes, including the icds, so that the schemes remain corruption-free and benefit the poor. It is the involvement of locals that can keep out the politico-corporate vested interests that have hijacked most of the welfare plans. This should be a priority area for Narendra Modi if he is serious about ‘maximum governance’.

In a letter dated 25 May, 2015 to the Maharashtra government, NC Saxena, commissioner, and Harsh Mander, special commissioner, both of whom were appointed by the sc to monitor icds, wrote that the idea was to create a decentralised model. “Such a model not only allows for greater monitoring by the community but also provides employment/livelihood opportunities for a large number of poor women and encourages demand for local produce,” they said. They added that implementation of such schemes “through centralised mechanisms… are manipulated in favour of commercial interests.”

This is why the sc set the ground rules for the supply of food in local Anganwadis, or village-level groups started in 1975 as part of icds. Way back in October 2014, it ruled that private contractors or big companies “shall not be used for supply of nutrition in Anganwadis and preferably ICDs funds shall be spent by making use of Village Communities (VCS), Self-help Groups (SHGs) and Mahila Man dals (MMS) for buying grains and preparation of the meals”. This was reiterated twice in two subsequent orders.

Ujjwal Uke, principal secretary, Maharashtra, got it right. In a letter he wrote on 29 December, 2014, he stated, “Our understanding of the 2004 (SC) order is that the supply of nutrition in Anganwadis should be made by small units which are local in nature. Decentralisation is the essential part of the spirit of the order.” The Centre has endorsed this. In November 2013, it asked the states “to involve more and more SHGs/VCS/MMS and reduce the involvement and share of the bigger suppliers”.

BACKDOOR ENTRY TO CONTRACTORS

Unfortunately, the Centre and several state governments have time and again sought ways to allow private contractors and big companies to enter icds through the backdoor. Only a few states – Odisha, Kerala and Chhattisgarh – created mechanisms where the food is supplied largely through local SHGs. Existing rules were twisted, new ones introduced, and both the letter and spirit of the SC orders were violated to subserve the politico-bureaucratic- contractor nexus.

For example, the Central Ministry of Women and Child Development, which is responsible for the nutrition part of ICDS, came out with a circular in September 2014. Although its ostensible purpose was to insist on the quality standards of the food supplied in Anganwadis, it stated: “State Governments/UTS (union territories) should get the nutritious food prepared/ manufactured only by competent and capable groups or entities who comply with the stipulations… irrespective of whether they are SHG, Mahila Mandal, Village Community, or a manufacturer… ”

In their letter, Saxena and Mander pointed out that the inclusion of “manufacturer” went against the previous sc orders. They maintained: “In the absence of a clear instruction by the sc to allow such manufacturers, the SC order… dated 7th of October, 2004, does not lose its validity and employment of such manufacturers stands in clear violation of the (2004) SC order.” They added that the Centre had “erred” in its interpretation of the other sc orders in 2009 and 2011.

WRONG INTERPRETATIONS

On 24 February, 2009, the Ministry of Women and Child Development issued the “Revised Nutritional and Feeding Norms for Supplementary Nutrition in icds”. The aims of these rules, among others, were to ensure that the quality of the food was good, food safety norms were followed by the suppliers and nutrient composition was adhered to. In April 2009, the apex court endorsed these guidelines. It directed the states to implement them, and also arrange for the requisite funds.

In 2009, critics said that the Centre had insidiously introduced the concept of “micro-nutrient fortified foods”. The office of the commissioner appointed by the sc wrote in a letter (April 24, 2009) that the ministry “is seeking to allow a backdoor entry of contractors and middlemen back into the… programme by suggesting” this idea. They said that fortified foods in the guise of “take-home rations” and “a morning snack” could be supplied only by private contractors “although this is not specifically stated”.

The commissioner’s office noted that several state governments had earlier tried to allow contractors to gain re-entry into ICDS. A few states had urged the sc to allow the inclusion of fortified foods, snacks and other ready-to-eat foods in the icds scheme. However, the apex court rejected such pleas. The commissioner’s office agreed that the Centre passed several administrative orders “to ensure compliance with the orders of the Hon’ble Court”. But it concluded that the fact that “such large-scale irregularities still persist point perhaps, for the need of the Commissioner’s Office to revisit the issue and seek fresh direction from the Hon’ble Court, as you deem appropriate”.

Two years later, in 2011, the apex court made further observations in the Shagun Mahila Udyogik Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit versus State of Maharashtra judgment. It said that “the supplier is required to provide fine mix of all kinds of ingredients including the revised intake of proteins and calories to the precise level”. This added to the quality and nutrient composition details that the central ministry had emphasised in its February 2009 guidelines on nutritional norms.

The SC endorsement of the 2009 guidelines and its observations in the Shagun Mahila case emboldened the Centre to think that private manufacturers and contractors could again be involved in ICDS. In May 2012, the central ministry clarified that “bonafide manufacturer, who fulfils the norms and standard laid down in the (February 2009) policy… and direction issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court (2011 order) can also be considered for the supply of micronutrient fortified foods”.

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