A request to Mr Aamir Khan: Please take contractors off our nutrition programmes

Dear Mr Khan,

It is heartening to see news reports that the government has launched a nationwide campaign against malnutrition amongst children and that you are the ambassador for this noble endeavour.

I am inclined to believe that your involvement has the tpotential to take this campaign beyond the rhetoric. That is why I am using this blog space to draw your attention to what I believe are the biggest impediments to effective state intervention against malnutrition.

Before I get there, let me recount an experience I had 20 years ago, while visiting Kalahandi in Odisha — then a region notorious for starvation deaths. I was on a bus that was carrying loads of smartly packed bags of maize powder with USAID stamped all over. The bags were offloaded at a destination that was the same as mine — Lanjigarh, probably the most impoverished part of Kalahandi that made headlines during the drought of 1986-87 after distress sale of a girl child by a starvation-hit family. The bags, I was told, were meant to be distributed through Anganwadis and other such centres as part of a child nutrition-assistance programme of the USAID. What I wasn’t told was that the food contained in the bags never reached its target group, until I discovered it the next day. In less than 24 hours of their arrival, the bags were taken to the local market and auctioned off. A week later, I happened to visit Kantabanjhi — the region’s main commercial centre, where traders, mostly marwaris and agarwals, logged export contracts even during the so-called drought years. That’s where I got the second shock, to find on the shelves of the kirana shops yellow-coloured powdery stuff in poly-packs of half kilo and one kilo denominations. The content, I learnt, was the same as what had come from the USAID. The customer had changed. The intent of charity had been replaced by the motive of profit. The cycle of subversion had been complete.

Cut to 2012, it would seem nothing has changed. Except that there are no longer such supplies from from foreign aid agencies as india has enough food and ability to meet the needs of its people. Except that, instead of a few hundred crores, the government today is spending thousands of crores on nutrtion programmes.

Money meant to be spent on child nutrition continues to be siphoned off by middlemen. Like the USAID supplies, which might not have gone with the dietary habit of the local tribes in Lanjigarh and could, therefore, be pushed out for auction, our nutrition programmes suffer from a “one-size-fits-all” syndrome and excessive centralisation. Our nutrition programmes do not reflect a sound understanding of what a child needs.

A child likes to eat in small portions. A child eats at unpredictable intervals. A child likes to eat a variety of food.

Such needs, Mr Khan, can never be addressed by a food contractor. Nor can these be tackled by an overly centralised policy.

That is why the Supreme Court passed an order in 2004, banning food contractors from the government’s supplementary nutrition programmes under the Integrated Child Development Scheme.

The order said only self-help groups, mahila mandals and village communities should be given the contracts.

The rationale was simple: local women groups will have better understanding of what their children want and their involvement will create a virtuous cycle of effective use of funds and economic empowerment at a community level.

Yet, the enforcement of the order has been weak, despite its reiteration by the court on two later occasions.

Private contractors in Maharashtra have floated front organisations controlled by their family members so that they can get around the order. Meghalaya has engaged a Noida-based contractor, while successive governments in Uttar Pradesh have blatantly violated the Supreme Court order by awarding nutrition contracts to a company run by liquor baron Ponty Chadha who died in a shootout last Saturday.

As a recent report submitted to Supreme Court said “a close nexus between politicians, contractors and bureaucrats has allowed for the active subversion of the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court orders.”

As a result, even after spending so much on nutrition programmes India continues to be the home for one in every three malnourished children in the world.

Mr Khan, the challenge therefore is to break this nexus. The challenge is to take contractors off our nutrition programmes.

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