It is a fight that has raged on for a decade. It is a battle to ensure that poor children and deprived pregnant and lactating women get a nutritious diet. It is a war to rightfully implement the grandiose central scheme, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). It is a cause, in which the civil society and Supreme Court (SC) had to intervene regularly to prevent the central and state regimes from side-stepping, bypassing and over-ruling the rules that were set by the apex court.
Although the original intentions of the policy makers were honest — they wanted poor children and mothers to eat well —ICDS was derailed because of obvious reasons like corruption, inefficiency and non-governance. In most states, it became a case of policy- and implementation-capture; powerful interest groups appropriated the scheme, and took it away from the locals. Politicians, bureaucrats and private contractors shared the central booty amongst themselves.
The core issue is that at the end of the day local communities at the village level should manage their own destinies. They need to decide how to run the welfare schemes, including the icds, so that the schemes remain corruption-free and benefit the poor. It is the involvement of locals that can keep out the politico-corporate vested interests that have hijacked most of the welfare plans. This should be a priority area for Narendra Modi if he is serious about ‘maximum governance’.
In a letter dated 25 May, 2015 to the Maharashtra government, NC Saxena, commissioner, and Harsh Mander, special commissioner, both of whom were appointed by the sc to monitor icds, wrote that the idea was to create a decentralised model. “Such a model not only allows for greater monitoring by the community but also provides employment/livelihood opportunities for a large number of poor women and encourages demand for local produce,” they said. They added that implementation of such schemes “through centralised mechanisms… are manipulated in favour of commercial interests.”
This is why the sc set the ground rules for the supply of food in local Anganwadis, or village-level groups started in 1975 as part of icds. Way back in October 2014, it ruled that private contractors or big companies “shall not be used for supply of nutrition in Anganwadis and preferably ICDs funds shall be spent by making use of Village Communities (VCS), Self-help Groups (SHGs) and Mahila Man dals (MMS) for buying grains and preparation of the meals”. This was reiterated twice in two subsequent orders.
Ujjwal Uke, principal secretary, Maharashtra, got it right. In a letter he wrote on 29 December, 2014, he stated, “Our understanding of the 2004 (SC) order is that the supply of nutrition in Anganwadis should be made by small units which are local in nature. Decentralisation is the essential part of the spirit of the order.” The Centre has endorsed this. In November 2013, it asked the states “to involve more and more SHGs/VCS/MMS and reduce the involvement and share of the bigger suppliers”.
BACKDOOR ENTRY TO CONTRACTORS
Unfortunately, the Centre and several state governments have time and again sought ways to allow private contractors and big companies to enter icds through the backdoor. Only a few states – Odisha, Kerala and Chhattisgarh – created mechanisms where the food is supplied largely through local SHGs. Existing rules were twisted, new ones introduced, and both the letter and spirit of the SC orders were violated to subserve the politico-bureaucratic- contractor nexus.
For example, the Central Ministry of Women and Child Development, which is responsible for the nutrition part of ICDS, came out with a circular in September 2014. Although its ostensible purpose was to insist on the quality standards of the food supplied in Anganwadis, it stated: “State Governments/UTS (union territories) should get the nutritious food prepared/ manufactured only by competent and capable groups or entities who comply with the stipulations… irrespective of whether they are SHG, Mahila Mandal, Village Community, or a manufacturer… ”
In their letter, Saxena and Mander pointed out that the inclusion of “manufacturer” went against the previous sc orders. They maintained: “In the absence of a clear instruction by the sc to allow such manufacturers, the SC order… dated 7th of October, 2004, does not lose its validity and employment of such manufacturers stands in clear violation of the (2004) SC order.” They added that the Centre had “erred” in its interpretation of the other sc orders in 2009 and 2011.
On 24 February, 2009, the Ministry of Women and Child Development issued the “Revised Nutritional and Feeding Norms for Supplementary Nutrition in icds”. The aims of these rules, among others, were to ensure that the quality of the food was good, food safety norms were followed by the suppliers and nutrient composition was adhered to. In April 2009, the apex court endorsed these guidelines. It directed the states to implement them, and also arrange for the requisite funds.
In 2009, critics said that the Centre had insidiously introduced the concept of “micro-nutrient fortified foods”. The office of the commissioner appointed by the sc wrote in a letter (April 24, 2009) that the ministry “is seeking to allow a backdoor entry of contractors and middlemen back into the… programme by suggesting” this idea. They said that fortified foods in the guise of “take-home rations” and “a morning snack” could be supplied only by private contractors “although this is not specifically stated”.
The commissioner’s office noted that several state governments had earlier tried to allow contractors to gain re-entry into ICDS. A few states had urged the sc to allow the inclusion of fortified foods, snacks and other ready-to-eat foods in the icds scheme. However, the apex court rejected such pleas. The commissioner’s office agreed that the Centre passed several administrative orders “to ensure compliance with the orders of the Hon’ble Court”. But it concluded that the fact that “such large-scale irregularities still persist point perhaps, for the need of the Commissioner’s Office to revisit the issue and seek fresh direction from the Hon’ble Court, as you deem appropriate”.
Two years later, in 2011, the apex court made further observations in the Shagun Mahila Udyogik Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit versus State of Maharashtra judgment. It said that “the supplier is required to provide fine mix of all kinds of ingredients including the revised intake of proteins and calories to the precise level”. This added to the quality and nutrient composition details that the central ministry had emphasised in its February 2009 guidelines on nutritional norms.
The SC endorsement of the 2009 guidelines and its observations in the Shagun Mahila case emboldened the Centre to think that private manufacturers and contractors could again be involved in ICDS. In May 2012, the central ministry clarified that “bonafide manufacturer, who fulfils the norms and standard laid down in the (February 2009) policy… and direction issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court (2011 order) can also be considered for the supply of micronutrient fortified foods”.
CONTRACTORS TO NGOS
Given the fact that the civil society and SC regularly emphasised the ban on private contractors and manufacturers, the politico-bureaucratic-commercial nexus found loopholes to wriggle out. One of the ways was for the “banned” private manufacturers to re-register themselves as NGOs (non-government organisations). In several hearings in the apex court, there were allegations that several contractors had done this to “over-reach the order” of the Supreme Court.
Several non-profit organisations (NPOs) and NGOs, which could supply food under ICDS, urged the SC to relax a few restrictions imposed by the governments. For example, they said that the three-year experience to bag icds contracts was too harsh. They maintained that the tenders should include a clause that allows NGOs and NPOs to treat the experience of the individuals connected with them as the organisations’ experience. Other NGOs emphasised that they had over three years’ experience, although they were registered as a society or trust for less than three years.
Critics argued that such relaxations would lead to backdoor entry of private contractors, who possibly got registered as NGOs. The SC said that the easing of the rules would allow them “to gain entry into such schemes without the social objectives of women empowerment as the actual perspective of their work.” At the end of the day, the real intention of the scheme was to empower the local communities, especially the SHGs. The desire was to discourage the private contractors, and involve the shgs through the ngos and npos. Finally, the NGOs and NPOs should go out of the picture too.
ENTRY BARRIERS FOR SMALL ENTITIES
A few states deliberately created barriers for local groups to win the tenders. They introduced clauses that stated that the bidders should have an annual turnover of at least Rs 1 crore for the past three years and fully-fledged automatic kitchen. Obviously, no SHGs, MMS or local community groups would fulfil either of the two conditions. According to a review petition (July 23, 2013) filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties, which was the original petitioner on icds, “this was introduced in collusion with contractors to oust the Mahila Mandals, which are inherently small collectives of local women from the village. It was aimed to bypass the sc ban on private contractors and manufacturers. No Mahila Mandal in the country could meet the norm of automated kitchen and a turnover of more than a crore.”
However, in the 2011 Shagun Mahila judgment, the sc had disagreed. “We are not impressed by the submission… that the condition of having Rs 1 crore over the three previous consecutive years is either arbitrary or whimsical,” it said. The order added: “We are also of the considered opinion that the food, which is to be supplied to the recipients as a part of supplementary nutrition programme has to be prepared in the manner prescribed by the Government for safety and nutrient composition… ”
One of the states’ “expression of interest (EOI)” document stated: “The eligible Mahila Mandal, Mahila Sanstha, self helping saving group, should attach a certificate about producing of the Food or equivalent like Fortified Blended premix and supplying the same to the Anganwadis in ICDS for the last 3 consecutive financial years… ” Critics immediately jumped on the categories that were allowed to bid. They objected to the inclusion of ‘Mahila Sanstha’ in the eoi.
As a close observer explained, “The 2004 SC order had specifically mentioned the categories that could get ICDS contracts. Mahila Sanstha was not part of them. By including this category, the state allowed contractors to get in. The reason: Mahila Sanstha can be any organisation that has women members; they don’t necessarily imply local village groups. Now, any of the big companies could float such an organisation, and participate in the tender process.”
In many cases, it was found that the winning bidders were companies that owned factories, which produced food products. In November 2012, a report by Biraj Patnaik, who was the principal advisor for Saxena and Mander, said, “in some of the states the bureaucracy-contractor nexus is well-documented by agencies such as the State Lokayuktas. I am placing on record the papers… that we have obtained from Karnataka reflecting the detailed investigations of the Lokayukta in exposing the complicity of department officials in the corruption involving Christy Fried Grams Pvt Ltd… ”
The central ministry’s September 2009 circular stated that the states had to furnish a certificate that the scheme operated as per the strict safety and health guidelines laid down by the ministry and SC. It added, “This certificate will be required to be furnished along with the utilisation certificate and shall be signed by an officer not below the rank of Secretary to the State Government.” However, Uke, Maharashtra’s principal secretary, argued in his letter (December 2014), “While the local SHGs are producing good quality THR (take-home rations), they will never be able to match the quality of large-scale manufacturers. As such the circular… is likely to defeat the decentralisation process.”
Clearly, the well-intentioned and much-needed icds finds itself in a political whirlpool. Despite public utterances to involve local communities, the policy drafters have either deliberately or otherwise introduced clauses that may achieve the opposite objective. Modi has to tackle these crucial issues before he can convince the citizens that he offers good and transparent governance.