Centre drops plan to abolish food packets at anganwadis
Panel reviewing schemes for budget ideas suggested giving cash transfers to mothers in place of food packets.
The government has dropped a proposal to replace take-home food packets given at anganwadi centres with money transfers, with Union women and child development (WCD) ministry to soon issue guidelines to states to stick to the system.
The decision puts a lid on a debate over how best to combat malnutrition among children, particularly in rural areas.
Anganwadi centres, or government-run daycares, have been giving out meals and additional packets of ready-to-cook, fortified foods for decades under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. But the system was under scanner about concerns over the meals being of substandard quality.
A senior WCD ministry official, wishing not to be identified, said rules are being drawn to ensure that hot cooked meals — given to children in the age group of 3-6 years — and take-home food packets meant for children between six months and three years, and pregnant and lactating mothers, are continued.
Nearly 41% of children aged under five in India’s villages show signs of stunted growth while 38% are underweight— symptoms that their nutrition was insufficient, according to the 2015-16 estimates from National Family Health Survey.
Approximately 8.37 crore children aged between six months and six years are covered under the supplementary nutrition programme. But states such as Maharashtra started the process of replacing cooked meals with pre-cooked food packets, drawing criticism from experts.
Doubts on the current system were first raised by a panel of top bureaucrats set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to review the government’s schemes and suggest budget ideas for 2017-18 on health, sanitation and urban development.
It recommended the system of giving food packets be replaced with cash transfers to mothers.
The proposal then went to the federal think-tank Niti Aayog, where a committee headed by Dr Vinod Paul shot it down.
“The panel recommended continuing with hot cooked meal to children between 3-6 years as mandated under the National Food Security Act and THR for those under three years and pregnant and lactating mothers,” said a second WCD ministry official.
The recommendation was sent to the PMO, which passed it on to the WCD ministry last month.
The cash transfer idea, however, is not completely off the table. “The government has not scrapped the cash transfer recommendation altogether. It has been put on hold for now,” a third government source said.
To check pilferage, the PMO has also said that food packets should be bar-coded.
Modi’s office has also directed the WCD ministry to set up a technical committee under Dr Paul to advise states on tackling malnutrition. “For severely acute malnourished children, states can give RUTF (ready-to-use therapeutic food) but only after getting the go-ahead from the technical committee.” RUTF can be consumed directly and are meant for children suffering from severe malnutrition.
Supplementary nutrition under ICDS is a legal entitlement under the National Food Security Act, 2013. The average meal for millions does not have the recommended level of nutrients.