Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi Tuesday said the ministry is planning a complete overhaul of its supplementary nutrition programme wherein states should provide nutrient packages directly to beneficiaries instead of providing food through anganwadis. Referring to the anganwadi-run supplementary nutrition scheme under the ministry’s Integrated Child Development Services Programme (ICDS), Maneka told a conference of officials from 130 districts with the highest rates of malnutrition, “Supplementary nutrition is in the form of take-home rations or hot-cooked meals. I want to bring about a complete change, an out-of-box change.”
“What we have till now is food which is not even calorie-dense. Secondly, our delivery system has always been dependent on anganwadis. Anganwadi stopped being an effective delivery system 20 years ago,” she said.
Maneka said that under the new policy, instead of food, the focus would be on nutrient packets that will provide 1,000 calories to pregnant and lactating mothers and 600 calories to children. “What we came up with is a change in policy which is, we stop thinking of this as giving food. Khana nahi dena — we give nutrition,” she said, adding that the packets would have a dry mixture of peanuts, millets and micro-nutrients which can be consumed with milk, lassi, juice, or water.
Experts, however, state that ready-to-use therapeutic foods cannot always be a substitute for hot-cooked meals. “There is nothing to beat hot -cooked fresh food but one has to ensure quality and quantity. The packages are useful in feeding children with acute malnutrition. It should be seen as a therapeutic food and should not replace your normal diet,” said Soumya Swaminathan, Director General of Indian Council for Medical Research.
Maneka said the delivery pattern too would be changed entirely so as to stop leakage. She pointed out that the Union government is very keen on direct benefit transfer (DBT) where cash is transferred directly to the beneficiary’s account instead of food. Maneka, however, said she is in favour of packed nutrients since DBT would mean a very small amount reaching the beneficiary who doesn’t have the advantage of buying food at government’s wholesale prices.
The minister suggested that nutrient packages should be delivered through post offices. “Thirty packages can be delivered through the post office to every family that has a baby and a pregnant mother. Since it is not vegetable or rice, it cannot be misused or sold in the market,” she said.
Ministry officials, however, said that as recommended by a NITI Aayog report, they have drawn up a proposal to substitute take-home rations with cash. “Once the proposal is approved, we will start a pilot project in 100 districts and later extend it to the others,” said an official.