HT Exclusive: Pankaja Munde’s dept wants to replace hot meals with ready-to-eat food packets
The department’s proposal is currently awaiting a nod from chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Sources from the CMO said that the proposal is being examined but has not yet been cleared.mumbai Updated: Sep 15, 2016 00:52 IST
On the heels of the controversy over the Take Home Rations (THR) tenders worth Rs 6,300 crore, the women and child development department that is led by Pankaja Munde, is now looking to replace the concept of hot cooked meals provided under the Centre’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) for children under 6 years, with THR-like ready-to-eat premixed food packets.
This means that instead of the “khichdi” (a mix of dal and rice) prepared locally by village communities or self help groups, anganwadis – government run child care centres – will be provided with certain kinds of ready-to-eat packets to prepare and serve the children.
The department’s proposal is currently awaiting a nod from chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Sources from the CMO said that the proposal is being examined but has not yet been cleared.
If cleared, the state government may once again run foul of the apex court orders that have reiterated that children under six should be served hot meals prepared locally by village communities or self help groups. The move can also weed out thousands of self help groups, currently preparing these meals in favour of contractors functioning under the garb of women organisations.
The department has, however, defended the move, saying the proposal is in line with the guidelines of the Centre and the Food Security Act, 2013, and aimed at providing hygienic, nutritious food to children.
“There have been several meetings and deliberations with the centre on the issue. The proposal, once cleared, will allow ready-to-eat food packets that can be prepared at anganwadis. It is in line with the Food Security Act. The problem with khichdi is that there has been no change in the recipe since 1975 and there is no way to keep quality control checks on it,’’ said Vinita Singhal, commissioner of women and child development department.
She said there was no question of awarding contracts to any company. “As per the Food Security Act, food contracts can only be given to women sansthas, self help groups.’’
However, critics say that the proposal is just a way to facilitate back door entry for big firms that already have their hands on the THR contracts and have invested in big plants and machinery to prepare food mixes.
In the past, the apex court has slammed the state for favouring big contractors through self help groups. A lot would depend on how the proposal is finalised and how the tender is drafted to award these contracts.
With over 88,272 functioning anganwadis in the state under ICDS and nearly 86.31 lakh children under them, a conservative budget per day on these meals works to Rs 4.24 crore at Rs 4.92 per child. For children alone, the annual budget (counting the mandatory 300 days) works out to Rs 292 crore (conservative estimate). For five years, the conservative cost of these tenders would be Rs 6460 crore.
“Our experience with the THR tender is that the state government is keen on pushing women self help groups out in the name of hygiene. That’s why they have insisted on a fully automated machinery to prepare such food packets. The hot cooked meal segment has a much larger scope with annual tenders worth over thousands of crores. If the concept shifts to these premixes, then similar tenders will be issued and the same five to six firms will get the biggest chunk of the contracts,’’ said a women self help group member and activist, who did not wish to be quoted.
She said that nearly one lakh self-help groups were involved in preparing of such meals, who did not stand a chance to continue if the government insisted on extrusion technology (fully automated process) and having in-house laboratories as in the case of THR contracts.