The recent debate or shall we call it ‘Halla’ between minister of state for women and child development Renuka Chowdhury and the Planning Commission over her ministry’s proposal to introduce packed pre-cooked food for children under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, well known under the acronym ICDS, in government and development sector, has been limited to cooked food over pre-cooked food, mainly biscuits.
ICDS, was launched way back 1975 and was to provide supplementary nutrition, immunisation, health check up, pre-school education, nutritional and health education to children below 6 years, pregnant women and nursing mothers through anganwadi centres (AWC) in the rural areas. ICDS, besides maintaining up-to-date registers on the growth and well-being of all young mothers and nursery-age children, also serve cooked food. The children are the primary target group, though pregnant, lactating mothers and adolescent girls are also covered for immunization and counseling on health and hygiene.
Coming back to the halla, between the minister and the Planning Commission, over what constitutes the best midday meal. The decibels of this halla increased when Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, sent a message to the Prime Minister, asking him not to allow a proposal to serve biscuits and pre-packaged food to pre-school children. He also asked the PM to prevent the move to replace cooked food with packaged food as part of the mid-day meal scheme in primary schools. Nutrition experts such as Dr B Sesikeran, stated that the mid-day meal scheme “is supposed to provide one wholesome meal to schoolchildren and biscuits cannot replace it”. Opinion of experts thus scuttled any proposal of serving pre-cooked food to the children attending aganwadis.
The ‘halla’ also increased, when various quarters reported that commercial interests were behind this move, though it is known that Biscuit Manufacturers Association were lobbying for this through the members of parliament and also writing directly to the Human Resources Ministry. Activists raised the issue that public policy were being influenced by corporate interests and the type of priorities our elected representatives have, all in the name of child welfare and rights.
The Planning Commission and various other are also quoting the Supreme Court judgement, where it had directed that the contractors shall not be used for supply of nutrition in AWCs’ and had recommended the involvement of village community through self help groups, mahila mandals for buying food ingredients and for preparation of the meals.
The commission said that the ready-to-eat micronutrient fortified food, ‘would expose the children to the risk of extra and may be excessive doses of micro-nutrient if fortified locally causing a serious health hazard.’ It also expressed the fear that it may lead to centralised procurement and distribution.
The argument given by the minister Renuka Choudhary for pre-cooked food under the ICDS was that, it was not feasible for the already overworked workers of anganwadis to provide hot, cooked meals for children in the childcare centres and that the meals were being cooked in unhygienic conditions using substandard ingredients and that it was not feasible for the anganwadi centres to provide hot cooked meals as the centres are not equipped for this. And hence she felt that it would be better if ready-cooked, pre-packaged food is given to children.
Field studies done have clearly shown that the Aganwadi Centres have problem of storage, kitchen, place of eating, unclean utensils, and the female workers practical difficulty in managing the whole task, besides handling the children at the same time. No ICDS staff at the field level is in favour of cooked food and will certainly go with the argument of their minister.
There is no doubt that the diagnosis of the problem with the Aganwadi centres is correctly done by the minister, and the only remedy she can fathom is by doing away with the cooked food. If what ails the centres is known, then the treatment has to be different. Proper infrastructure and logistics needs to be looked into and addressed and the loopholes plugged, as in other government interventions programmes. Such community based programmes needs to be immediately decentralized and handed over to the panchyats.
Development economist, nutritionist and health activists, felt that any change in the present system of serving cooked food would be a regressive step. But sadly, the problems of infrastructure and logistics, besides the flaws and the corruption in implementing the scheme were conveniently forgotten or taken up in the debate. So now, what is cooking Renukaji!