Nutrition and affirmative action: The twain shall meet

A lot could be done for making ICDS responsive and impactful for the Dalit children. However, there are multiple design and operational flaws

By Biraj Swain
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

A lot could be done for making ICDS responsive and impactful for the Dalit children. However, there are multiple design and operational flaws

The architects of India's Constitution were alive to the age-old discrimination against Dalits and the legitimacy provided by Hindu religious scriptures to such discrimination. To extricate Dalits from this mire, they did three things. They wrote fundamental rights and directive principles which make positive discrimination and affirmative actions possible, they provided a host of safeguards centred around social, economic, political, educational and cultural rights to Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised communities (including but not limited to representation and legislation functions) and they took care to not repeat the historical injustice by treating “unequals as equals”. In other words, they exhorted the state to take action around education, employment, asset ownership to free Dalits from the trap of discrimination and ensure their development.

The architects of the Constitution embedded these provisions in over-arching sections like the fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy, applicable to all the citizens of India. they took care to uphold special provisions for the most marginalised: these include Articles 14, 15(4), 16(A), 16(4A), 21, 46, 47, 48, 243(d), 244(1), 244(2), 271(1), 330 to 332.

But the contemporary state’s response leaves a lot to be desired. From abandoning the National Family Health Survey because it had become a harbinger of bad news—and held a mirror to reality—to not disclosing caste/identity based disaggregated figures on human development—because some indicators showed Dalits faring very poorly—the pendulum has swung fully: from statistical spin-doctoring to camouflaging active discrimination.

But some stand-out provisions in food, nutrition and sectors directly and obliquely impacting nutrition, deserve a mention. They are:

Special Component Plan (SCP): The SCP, initiated during the Indian Government’s Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85), envisaged a radical redefinition of planning and budgeting for Dalits. It was founded on the government's realization that decades of planning and hundreds of millions of rupees spent in the name of “Welfare of SCs & STs” had not brought any substantial socio-economic changes for Dalits. The SCP was brought in as a radically reworked strategy of Dalit welfare and empowerment. “The Sixth Five Year Plan marked a shift in the approach to the development of the SCs. The SCP, launched for the SCs, was expected to facilitate easy convergence and pooling of resources from all the other development sectors in proportion to the population of SCs and monitoring of various development programmes for the benefit of SCs”, committed the SCP text in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

In practice, this meant:

  • The centre had to set aside 16.8 per cent (the scheduled caste population per census 2011) of its annual planned budget for Dalits
  • The money was meant for improving the economic, social and human development status of Dalits
  • This is to be provided to the states and respective line departments based on their plans and resource requirements for Dalits. This finance requirement is pooled at the state capital level and submitted to federal finance ministry and planning commission
  • Every state can demand as a matter of right a percentage allocation from SCP based on its Dalit population
  • The money is meant to top up the state and departmental resources since SCP works on the progressive and pragmatic rubric that reaching the marginalised costs additional money

National Food Security Act, 2013 : On September 2, 2013 the Indian Parliamet ushered in a new legally-enforceable regime in the country's struggle against hunger: the National Food Security Act, 2013. This turned the rights and entitlements framework that provided subsidised food grains to 75 per cent rural and 50 per cent urban Indians 67 per cent Indians—into a law. In terms of the sheer number of people it hopes to cover, the Act is unprecedented and largest in the world.

The Act brings nutrition rich millets into the public distribution fold. It includes the school meal programme or Mid-Day Meals . It also includes Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) with a remit to cover children from 6 months to 6 years. ICDS is also India’s flagship response to under-nutrition with a mandate of providing children hot cooked meals and supplementary nutrition/meal. Lactating and pregnant women are entitled to Rs 6,000 as dietary allowance. The act focuses on promoting early breast-feeding, new-born care and child counselling. Strengthening delivery mechanisms like the public distribution system (PDS) and institutions like the local vigilance committees and grievance redressal are also the act's focus.

In view of the fact that the lack of institutional accountability and service provider discrimination are a core problem for Dalits, these features hold a lot of promise.

On the Mid Day Meals Scheme front, 2012 saw a plethora of news reports on discrimination in the school feeding programmes. However, credit where it is due, the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s unit charged with Mid Day Meal Scheme has institutionalised monitoring the meals, for quality (post Saran tragedy in 2013) and social cohesion. States like Andhra Pradesh have also gone a step further in formalising the appointment of Dalit cooks for encouraging social cohesion.

Integrated Child Development Scheme: ICDS Scheme represents one of the world’s largest programmes for early childhood development. It is the response to the challenge of providing pre-school education on one hand and breaking the vicious cycle of malnutrition, morbidity, reduced learning capacity and mortality, on the other. The scheme focuses on nutrition and health status of children in the age group of 0-6 years, through supplementary nutrition, immunisation, health check-ups, pre-school formal education and nutrition & health education. In its new improved version, it takes a life-cycle approach with strengthening reach to adolescent girls, lactating and pregnant mothers, while retaining the focus on children.

With flexible norms for Dalit and tribal Anganwadi centres and provision for additional Anganwadi worker and the mandate for upgrading some Anganwadi Centres to Anganwadi Centre-cum-creche, a lot could be done for making ICDS responsive and impactful for the Dalit children. However, there are multiple design and operational flaws which are being incrementally addressed. The Planning Commission in one of its most comprehensive evaluation of 2011, stated that the programme is woefully inadequate in coverage and outreach and delivery. It has concluded that, despite the fact that outlay for the ICDS was increased from Rs 121 billion in the Tenth Plan (2002–07) to Rs 444 billion in the Eleventh Plan (2007–12), the outcomes were most disappointing. Only 19 per cent of the mothers reported that the Anganwadi Centre (AWC) provides nutrition counselling to parents. More than 40 per cent of the funds meant for supplementary nutrition (SN) are siphoned off; for financial year 2008/09 the amount of SN allocation diverted is estimated at Rs 29 billion. Although 81 per cent of children below six years of age were living in an area covered by the AWCs, only 31 per cent children received SN and only 12 per cent received it regularly (Planning Commission 2012). Only 38 per cent of pregnant women and lactating mothers, and 10 per cent of adolescent girls received SN.

Dr NC Saxena, the Supreme Court Commissioner on the Right to Food litigation, has been consistently raising the fundamental flaws in ICDS:. it being a centre-based approach than an out-reach approach, the self-reporting data being very dodgy, and the coverage still being woefully inadequate. More than, techno-managerial fixes, he feels vigilance and community monitoring will go a long way in reforming the programme.

However, Harsh Mander (Special Commissioner on the Right to Food to the Supreme Court) and M Kumaran in their study in 2006 revealed, how affirmative actions can come a cropper in the face of insidious exclusion. Their study in 14 villages across four states (Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh) concludes, “It is not a mere accident that in none of the surveyed mixed-caste villages was the AWC located in the Dalit or Adivasi hamlet. The decision to locate not just the AWC, but also other valued institutions and services, in the upper caste so-called ‘main’ village is influenced by the upper caste and class [sic] and politically powerful groups in the village.” They claim that in addition to the locational factor, a large number of eligible children from impoverished and food deprived households did not access ICDS services, including supplementary nutrition for infant and small children…… and that the denial of these services is not random or accidental but is frequently the outcome of active social discrimination, based on caste, gender and disability.

Based on Sukhdeo Thorat and Joel Lee’s paper in Economic and Political Weekly, the Supreme Court has directed states to give priority to Dalit and Scheduled Tribes hamlets for setting up ICDS centres in 2005. It has also mandated Dalit cooks and dedicated ICDS centres in habitats with over 40 per cent Dalit population. But these mandates are yet to be adhered to in letter and spirit.

This is as much a case for active civil society monitoring (not just Dalit activists but democratistas) and state response!

Biraj Swain works on Poverty, Public Policy and Governance in South Asia and Horn East and Central Africa, Adjunct Faculty at Pondicherry Central University, UNU, UNESCO-MISARC

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