Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fighting hunger remains a day-dream

Central schemes flounder, need to strengthen monitoring

Sopan Correspondent / New Delhi

Some of the social schemes meant to fight hunger and malnutrition in the country are in complete shambles. This has left the intended beneficiaries fighting for their survival in some of the poorest districts in the country with no alternative except to curse their fate.
Ironically the deficiencies loom large even as crores of rupees are spent on these schemes by the Centre every year. They include schemes like the ICDS, MDM and MGREGS. The poor state of affairs exist despite a series of directives from the Supreme Court since 2001 to tighten the schemes and make them reach the intended beneficiaries.
An indication to the poor reach of these schemes was pointed out by the National Family Health Survey which revealed that only 46 per cent of infants are malnourished and 49 per cent of women are aneaemic.
The Supreme Court appointed Commissioners, who are helping the court to monitor and track the implementation of its various orders, did surveys in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. Not surprising, they found poor implementation of the central schemes.
Even the ministry of women and child development admits that only about 59 per cent of the eligible children are receiving nutrition supplements through the 11 lakh anganwadi centers across the country.
The survey of the SC Commissioners shows that in Madhya Pradesh, children were given food for just 130 days in a year, while in Bihar and Assam there were 180 feeding days on an average. Although Orissa with 240 and West Bengal with 242 were slightly better placed in this pedestal, they were still lagging in the mandatory requirement of at least 300 feeding days a year.
The SC Commissioners survey in most cases found a discrepancy between the official record of an anganwadi's operation and the villagers' testimony at the grassroots level. For instance, in Assam, the official records said the anganwadi centers functioned for 19 days per month on average, but villagers' version added up to only 12 days.
There is no dispute that food is a daily need. No one can skip nutrition for a week, fends for themselves and then resume and also be healthy. Moreover, it is universally recognized that inadequate or lack of nutrition at an early age permanently impair physical and mental capabilities, which is difficult to overcome at a later stage.
It was found that factors like shortage of staff, irregular supply of raw material, very irregular financial flows, excessive workload on the workers, insufficient funds for infrastructure, and corruption were some of the reasons for the criminal lacunae on the part of the authorities.
In Orissa, 28 per cent of the posts in the ICDS programme were found to be lying vacant while in West Bengal this was 22 per cent. Interestingly, in West Bengal, there are 12,082 anganwadis with no worker. The situation was no different in some other states.
The Targeted Public Distribution System ( TPDS) was found to be in a mess along with other schemes. In several places, the intended beneficiaries did not get any foodgrain for the entire year. As per Supreme Court orders 35kg rice per month at Rs 4.96 per kg should be provided. But the survey revealed that TPDS, the country's biggest and oldest food subsidy scheme is tottering on the ground. The survey reports from West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Assam and Madhya Pradesh reveal that the gigantic scheme, billed as a lifeline for India's hungry millions, is in shambles.
According to the official statistics, every month, over 4.2 million tonnes of rice and wheat are allotted by the central government for distribution through a network of nearly half a million fair price shops spread across all states and Union territories. How much reaches the beneficiaries is anybody's guess.
Making people aware about the government schemes so that they can actually take benefits from it remains one of the challenges before the NGOs and the civil society groups. This is more so as the government officials simply do not want to admit the existence of schemes as it would only entail more administrative work for them, something which they hate, having grown up on a poor work culture and lack of concern for the downtrodden.
Ironically, this happens despite that fact that both the central and state governments run a large number of schemes for social welfare, health, income generation etc. for the underprivileged. In fact, the array of schemes makes it difficult for the governments (both central and state) to keep a track of them, the deliverables and the impact.

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