Time to stand up for children’s right

Union budget for 2016-17 slashed funds for ICDS by a staggering 50% before partially restoring it following public criticism. ICDS scheme needs to be nurtured for children’s welfare & rights

Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Jean Drèze

No social programme in India is more exciting, more critical, or more promising than the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). A colourful and lively anganwadi, where young children get a taste not only of nutritious food but also of the joy of learning, is a ray of hope for the entire village. The future of Indian children, and indeed of the country, is being shaped in these modest premises managed by local women.

Having said this, ICDS is also one of India’s most neglected schemes. That was one of the key messages of Focus on Children Under Six (FOCUS) report, released ten years ago. Among the six FOCUS states, three (Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) were classified as “active states”, where the ICDS programme was doing quite well. In the other three (Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), called “dormant states” in the report, the programme was yet to go beyond the provision of food supplements. Even the food supplements left much to be desired, especially Uttar Pradesh where a greedy contractor was making money by supplying low-quality panjiri (a ready-to-eat mixture) to ICDS centres.

Just before the FOCUS report was released, in December 2006, the Supreme Court issued far-reaching orders on ICDS. All children below the age of six years were declared to be entitled to all ICDS services. The Government of India was directed to increase the number of anganwadis from about 7 lakh to 14 lakh (roughly, one per habitation). Settlements with at least forty children below six years but no anganwadi were entitled to being provided with an anganwadi on demand.

These orders helped to create a new momentum for ICDS. Anganwadis, like schools, came to be regarded as an essential facility for every village. Government expenditure on ICDS shot up, and the programme also started receiving greater attention in public debates and democratic politics. Repeated attempts by commercial interests to invade the programme met with spirited resistance. There were also lively discussions about the “restructuring of ICDS”, eventually leading to major improvements in the guidelines.

Against this background, the findings of the recent Progress of Children Under Six (POCUS) report are relatively encouraging. This report is based on a resurvey of the FOCUS districts ten years on (in 2014), and suggests significant quality improvements. Two of the formerly dormant states, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, had a much more active ICDS programme by 2014 – Uttar Pradesh, alas, was still far behind. Taking the six states together, improvements are evident in the quantity and quality of food supplements, the regularity of child attendance, the maintenance of growth charts, and related matters. Consider for instance the proportion of sample mothers who stated that their child attends the anganwadi regularly, or that immunisation services are provided there, or that pre-school activities under the ICDS benefit their child. In each case, the proportion was 80 per cent or more in 2014, compared with 40 to 50 per cent in 2004. Similarly, the proportion of sample mothers who felt that the ICDS is “important for their child’s welfare” increased from 48 per cent in 2004 to 84 per cent in 2014. The fact that quality improvements took place during a phase of rapid quantitative expansion is good news. As quantitative expansion becomes less urgent, there will be greater scope for qualitative improvements in the near future.

Slow but steady progress

Further evidence of slow but steady progress in the performance of the ICDS has recently emerged from the Rapid Survey on Children 2013-14 (RSOC). Good practices such as the provision of nutritious food, the maintenance of growth charts, and pre-school education activities at the anganwadi are becoming the norm in large parts of the country. To illustrate, one sign of good anganwadi management is that children’s growth charts are being maintained. According to the RSOC, this was the case in a large majority of anganwadis in twelve out of twenty major states, including Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal aside from the usual suspects. Of course, the shortfalls remain huge, especially in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Even in the lagging states, however, there are signs of improvement in ICDS-related indicators. For instance, Bihar achieved the largest improvements in child immunization and coverage of antenatal care between 2005-6 and 2013-14, starting of course from a very low base.

Another interesting experience is that of Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, not known for exemplary governance. In a recent survey of about 50 randomly selected anganwadis in four districts of Odisha, we found that anganwadis opened regularly and provided most of the prescribed services. Supplementary nutrition is part of the daily routine, with an improved menu, including eggs twice or thrice a week. Pre-school education is taking root: at more than three-quarters of anganwadis, children were able to recite a poem when asked. Health services such as growth monitoring, immunisation and antenatal care were also provided regularly, in collaboration with the local Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA). Further, Odisha has developed an effective model of decentralised production of take-home rations for children below the age of three years, involving women’s self-help groups. Take-home rations in Odisha includes eggs, not only for young children but also for pregnant and lactating women. This is an important innovation: children below three are the most critical age group, yet ICDS has tended to be more focused, so far, on children in the age group of three to six years.

Alas, the central government seems to be returning to the days of vacillation on ICDS that preceded the Supreme Court orders. In the union budget 2015-16, ICDS funds were slashed by a staggering 50 per cent or so, though the cuts were partly reversed later in the year due to public criticism. The cuts were sought to be justified on the grounds that the share of state governments in the divisible pool of taxes had been raised from 32 to 42 per cent. But this does not explain why the axe should have fallen most heavily on children’s programmes (not only the ICDS but also school meals). This move sent a disastrous signal about the social priorities of the central government. Some state governments, notably the Government of Odisha, complained in strong terms about the devastating consequences of the central budget cuts.

Corporate Interests

Another ominous development is the growing influence of commercial interests on nutrition policy. With millions of children enrolled, a contract for supplying ready-to-eat food products to anganwadis can be very lucrative, especially when a lack of oversight enables contractors to lower quality and costs. Scams involving private contractors have surfaced in several states including Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Sometimes corporate interests come in the guise of an argument for food fortification – some readers may recall how sections of the biscuit industry made a disgraceful attempt to promote biscuits as a substitute for cooked food in the midday meal scheme. That was almost ten years ago, but corporate interests have continued to eye child nutrition programmes ever since.

These challenges make it all the more important to stand up for children’s rights, including their right to all ICDS services – nutrition, health care, and pre-school education. The silver lining is that, despite this slackening of central support, progress appears to continue at the state level. For instance, many states are now serving eggs in anganwadis: Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telengana, West Bengal, and even Bihar. Growing attention is being given to pre-school education as a core activity of ICDS. Uttar Pradesh has finally moved away from panjiri to cooked meals for children in the age group of 3 to 6 years. All these are just small steps forward, and the overarching pattern of gross neglect of children under six continues. But the last ten years or so have at least demonstrated the possibility of accelerated progress in this field. Even the central government’s indifference towards young children, hopefully, is not irreversible.

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