1.2 million children in Karnataka are malnourished, state tells high court

Civil rights groups blame packaged food supplied to anganwadis 

 
By Sonal Matharu
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Close on the heels of the damning hunger and malnutrition (HUNGaMA) report, which found 42 per cent children below age five across India underweight and 59 per cent children stunted,  comes another report on the state of nutrition among children in Karnataka state.

Over 1.2 million children in the state in the age group of 0-6 years are malnourished and underweight, says a government report submitted to the Karnataka High Court on January 19. The report was filed in response to a public interest petition being heard by the court.

Civil society groups in Karnataka blame packaged food supplied to many anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme for the poor nutritional status of Karnataka's children. The Naandi Foundation which surveyed 112 rural districts to prepare the HUNGaMA report, incidentally, promotes packaged food like biscuits for children

Since November 2010, NGOs in Karnataka have been campaigning for replacing packaged food given to pre-school children at anganwadi centres across the state with locally prepared hot-cooked meals. 

Packaged food makes children sick

Instead of using the community self-help groups for providing hot cooked meals at anganwadis, in May 2007, the government of Karnataka entered a contract with a Tamil Nadu-based private company, Christy Friedgram Industry, for supplying packaged food. Since then, children attending anganwadis are being given packets of dry food mixture to which hot water is added before consumption.

NGOs working with anganwadis say children detest this food. At many of the anganwadis, children complained of stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and headache after consuming the food.  “People there are digging pits and throwing food into it because there was so much supply and the children would not eat it. The anganwadis cannot refuse to take the food from the suppliers,” says Kavita Ratna, director of Concerned for Working Children, a non-profit. She adds that mothers take their children home before the anganwadis serve the meals because they are spending more money on the children’s health later on.

NGOs associated with the Right to Food Campaign wrote letters to the Karnataka High Court in 2011, highlighting the state of malnourished children in the state and the court took notice of that and the petition was filed in court on October 2011.

Malnourishment highest in Raichur district

While the court case continues, a report was filed on December 2011 in the Supreme Court by advocate Clifton D Rozario, advisor to commissioners of the Supreme Court in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) v Union of India case, after visiting Raichur district in October 2011. The district has the maximum number of malnourished children in the state (see box). Most of the children suffering from severe malnutrition belong to the Schedule Caste community of Madiga sub-caste and incidence of malnourishment is higher among girls.

Hunger deaths stalk Raichur's children 

  • 2,689: number of malnourished children who died in Raichur district of Karnataka between April 2009 and August 2011
  • 4,531: number of children suffering from severe malnutrition
  • 2.1 million: number of mildly malnourished children in Karnataka
  • 1.13 million: number of moderately malnourished children
  • 71,605: number of severely malnourished children
 
In letters sent to the department of women and child development (DWCD) and the chief secretary of Karnataka, Rozario wrote that the food at the anganwadis is “not palatable and that there is a strong link to the lack of nutritious food being supplied and increasing malnutrition”. The report added that Supreme Court had strictly prohibited use of contractors in supply of food under ICDS Scheme. On February 2011, the secretary, DWCD replied to his letter denying that the employment of Christy Friedgram Industry was in violation of the orders of the Supreme Court.

The food is supplied in pre-packaged form and is prepared by mixing with hot water. “The bisibele bath (a rice preparation) that is served every alternate day is inedible because of the smell,” Rozario wrote in his report. Repeated requests for hot cooked meals of cereals, pulses, eggs, vegetables and fruits, however, were never met by the government.

Also, the food packets mentioned the zinc content between 6.25 mg/100g and 9.64 mg/100g. Upon testing the food, civil right groups found that though the content mentioned on the packet are correct, it was more than the permissible limit of 5 mg/100g. When contacted, the general manager of Christy Friedgram Industry, Rajaram Mohan, said, “The problem is not with our food, the anganwadis are not fine.” He refused to comment further.

Meanwhile, giving in to the pressure of the civil society groups, the state government made minor changes to the food that was given at anganwadis. On November 31, 2011, the state government formed three committees to assess the health and nutrition of lactating mothers and malnourished children, besides monitoring the ICDS. The consolidated report of these three committees was submitted in the Karnataka High Court. The report says that all children in the 0-6 years old age group in the state should be weighed. It added that the anganwadis should provide “freshly cooked meals” and the food supply to the anganwadis should be decentralized.

Change in menu

“By next week we are changing the food list at all anganwadis. Ragi kheer, rice kheer, green gram and multi-grain flour will now be given to these centres,” says Usha Patwari, joint director, ICDS, department of women and child development in Karnataka. Most of the food added under the programme will be ready-to-eat, that is, hot water will be added to it. Rest of the food will be cooked at the centres for which gas stoves will be provided. But out of the 63,377 anganwadi centers, the government has so far provided gas cylinders to only 35,000 centres.

Though the contract with Christy Friedgram Industry is valid till May, Patwari added that by March, the preparation of the food will be handled by independent self-help groups (SHGs). “The company provided only assistance to the SHGs like installing machines, providing infrastructure and training. The food was always prepared by the self-help groups,” she claims.

But the non-profits working in the state are not convinced. “Once the present contract ends, we are afraid that it will be re-issued in some other form. The groups fighting for these children will have to be alert,” says Nina Nayak, chairperson, Karnataka state commission for protection of child rights.

“Under the contract, the company is allowed to spend Rs 4 per child. In one of the anganwadis, the local panchayat started cooking using locally produced food with the help of self-help groups and the cost for feeding per child came to Rs 2,” says Ratna. 

Over 1.4 million children between three and six years old get food at the anganwadis in Karnataka.

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