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Demanding Community Ownership and Decentralization in ICDS Nutrition Program in India

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Shri Narendra Modi

Prime Minister of India

Hon’ble Prime Minister,

We, are writing to express our deep concern about current proposals of the government to replace supplementary nutrition provided at anganwadi centres with cash transfers or packaged foods (to be delivered through post offices).

This move would undermine India’s fight against malnutrition as well as women’s employment. Recent experience with cash transfers (from NREGA wage payments and pension schemes to cash-transfer experiments in Chandigarh and Puducherry) does not give any confidence that cash grants will be disbursed in a timely manner in this case, or that women will have convenient access to their bank accounts, or that the money will be wisely used for nutrition purposes. Cash transfers in place of supplementary nutrition would also violate the National Food Security Act (NFSA), which clearly states that all children under six years of age and pregnant/lactating women will be given one free meal a day through the anganwadi centres. The Schedule II of the NFSA (Annexure 1) clearly states that children in the 3 to 6 year old age group shall be given one snack and a meal each day and the other beneficiary groups take home rations.

It is true that the existing programme of take-home rations (THR) for children under three years and pregnant and lactating women is far from effective in many states (though there are also success stories, such as the provision of boiled eggs in some states). The programme often suffers from leakages and poor quality of food, especially where it is based oncentralised contracts for packaged foods, opening up many avenues for corruption. It is in recognition of this that the Supreme Court in 2004 passed orders banning private contractors in the provision of supplementary nutrition under ICDS and encouraging decentralised production and distribution through village groups, mahila mandals, SHGs etc.

The recent increase in the budgetary allocations for supplementary nutrition under ICDS is welcome and this money should be spent on decentralised food in the form of hot cooked meals or nutritious take-home rations. A decentralised system allows community monitoring and would also create employment opportunities for rural women. Through this, greater variety in the food given can also be ensured. One of the ways of strengthening the programme would be to provide locally cooked, culturally appropriate, hot cooked meals, as is being provided to primary school children under the Mid Day Meal Scheme. Cooked meals also contribute to the process of socialisation with children learning to eat together and can enable breaking of caste barriers. Provision of food rather than cash through the anganwadi centres would also contribute to the reduction of unpaid work burden on women.

As you know,undernutrition rates in India are still extremely high. According to the NFHS-4 38% of children are stunted and 36% children are underweight. Amongst the multiple multi-sectoral interventions that are required to address this problem, supplementary nutrition plays an important role. The anganwadi is the base for coordinated nutrition activities of various departments, and it can be developed into a lively centre where all the village-level services for women and young children converge.Food distribution plays a critical role in attracting women and children to the anganwadi and ensuring that they receive other essential services related to growth monitoring, nutrition counselling, ante-natal care etc.Research also shows that the feeding programmes of the ICDS benefit girls and children from marginalised families more and that they have a positive effect on heights of 0-2 year olds.

Obesity and NCDs are already a sharply rising public health problem in India. In this context, packaged foods could do damage by causing long term disruptions of food systems and food culture, leading to obesity and increases in non-communicable diseases like diabetes should also not be taken lightly.

I/We strongly stand by the demand being made by Right to Food Campaign and urge you to ensure that the ICDS programme is strengthened, and that additional funds are used for decentralised and locally accountable production rather than being allowed to be misappropriated by private packaged-food contractors.


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