26, Feb 2018 | Sushmita
Four years since the Modi government came to power and ‘Ache Din’ remain as elusive as ever, more so for the extremely vulnerable sections of India. Even as the government plans to build Shanghais out of small and big cities, the fact remains that a large section goes to sleep without a nibble of food.
How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him–he has known a fear beyond every other.
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
In a report titled, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2017, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has estimated that 190.7 million people are undernourished in India. Further, that a significant proportion of women, as many as 51.4% in the reproductive age group between 15 to 49 years suffer from anaemia. 38.4% of children under age six are stunted while 21% suffer from wasting (weight too low for their height).
Malnourished children are at a greater risk of death from illnesses such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria – the common childhood illnesses. The Global Hunger Index 2016 ranks India at 97 out of 118 countries on the basis of three leading indicators- prevalence of wasting and stunting in children under 5 years, under 5 child mortality rate, and the proportion of undernourished in the population. 75 lakh new born children die every year in India before they can even complete six months, as per the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD).
In these drastic conditions, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) serves as a lifeline for many far flung villages in rural India that still await development and its associated ‘benefits’. It serves as a scheme for the holistic development of the children aged less than six years of age, as well as pregnant and lactating mothers. As many as 10 crore Indian children under the age of six have been said to benefit from the scheme. Even the Supreme Court, recognising its relevance gave orders in years 2001, 2004 and 2006 to universalise it. A Right to Food Campaign (RTFC) activist in Gujarat, Sejal Dand had noted, “The Supreme Court directive was very clear. Kids under three were to be given a panjiri while those between three to six years of age were to be given a hot cooked meal preferably using local foods to be cooked by local community women.”
Direct Cash Transfers and Shrinking Welfare Budgets
However, the current government seems not to have understood its importance in the daily lives of the many beneficiaries it aims to cater. It, as many sources fear, wants to quietly launch pilot projects to replace the scheme with direct cash transfers. This has reflected in the apathy it has shown in cutting budgets for the scheme only to get back to a budget, still grossly inadequate. In the first budget of NDA government the budget was cut down from Rs, 18108 crores (2014-2015) to Rs. 8400 crores (2015-16). Facing stiff protest from various quarters, the government was compelled to increase this. ICDS allocation for this year amounted to Rs. 16,334.88 crores, slight increase from that of last year, Rs. 15,425.19 crores, which still as All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers & Helpers (AIFAWH) argues, is grossly inadequate.
This is a lot of hypocrisy for a government which came to power with claims in its 2014 manifesto such as “Review the working conditions and enhance the remuneration of Anganwadi workers”.
“This allocation is grossly inadequate to even cover the increased cost norms for the supplementary nutrition declared by the Ministry in 2017” said AIFAWH in a letter addressed to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. In a grievous situation, in many states, the supplement nutrition hasn’t been supplied since last six months.
Instead, all signs are indicative of measures to switch to a direct benefit transfer scheme from the provision of services in Anganwadi centres. Even in direct benefit transfer scheme, the government is considering two options, either send ‘nutrient packets’ directly to beneficiaries through postal services or transfer cash. Both these suggested measures are laden with problems. It is likely that cash transfers will not work in the case of ICDS, as previous experiences of other schemes such as MGNREGA or PDS have suggested.
Paltry Allocation of Funds vs Poor Quality Food Packets
The financial allocation for pregnant and lactating mothers come to Rs. 7 per day while the allocation for every child is Rs. 6 per day. The government is able to provide meals, or at least, is understood to provide meals at such rates because the Food Corporation of India gives food at subsidised rates. There is no way that cash transfers will be adequate if transferred to individuals accounts. In fact, Maneka Gandhi herself admitted that in Rs. 180- allocation of money for a month- there is no way that a mother can feed herself of feed the baby for more than three days.Not just that, the imagination that all the beneficiaries will be in possession of a bank account is far from the ground realities of rural India, where many villages are yet to see the opening of Banks.
Similarly, there are problems with delivering nutrient packets through postal services- as compared to the wholesale procurement of grains and the cooking associated with it, the said ‘nutrient packet’ can hardly replace the freshly cooked food. It will only become another avenue for profit making for multinationals. Corporates will have their own profit motives and will be bent towards reducing costs for these packets rather than providing quality food. By indulging in this move, the government completely plans to withdraw from its responsibility of providing food for all. Commenting on this, Devika Singh, associated with Mobile Creche, that provides services to urban poor settlements expressed her disappointment, “It defies belief that we want to hand over this life saving scheme to corporate houses who function on the basis of profit motives”
The Struggle of Anganwadi Workers
To make this program successful or even viable, as many as 14 lakh Anganwadi workers work long and hard hours on a variety of aspects like sanitation, livelihood, healthcare etc. However, there is no recognition of the labour that is spent in the entire process. In fact these workers work at piecemeal salaries.
In the case of Maharashtra alone, while the Anganwadi worker is paid Rs. 3000 as monthly salary, the Helper and Asha workers receive Rs. 1500 and 500 respectively. Some centres do not have helpers making it impossible for the Anganwadi worker to go on a holiday. Some cases were also reported where the officials in the tehseel ask them to spend the money to buy raw materials for the meals from their own pockets. Under pressure, the workers often do this and these amounts are not reimbursed later.
Demanding better wages and regularization of terms of employment, as many as 60 lakh ICDS scheme workers, which included Anganwadi workers as well as helper, had gone on a one day strike on January 17, 2018. Earlier, in November 2017, they had participated in a historic ‘mahapadav’ at Delhi on same demands. In fact the 45th Indian Labour Conference, had also recommended recognition of the scheme workers including Anganwadi workers and helpers as employees, give them minimum wages and pension and other social security benefits. Though the state and central government say that they will increase the budget, and even circulated a GR in this regard, no implementation has taken place yet. Anganwadi workers have been protesting all these problematic moves of the government for about four years without eliciting much of a response. Hence, continuing with their demands they are sitting for a protest again tomorrow February 27, 2018. It remains to be seen if the government will respond with a resolution to these issues.