Heera Kambdi, her five children snuggled beside her, laughs as she holds out a red-coloured packet of ready-to-eat Take Home Ration (THR). “They make balls out of it and play,” says the young mother, in her home in Kurlodh village, Mokhada, a region infamous for malnutrition.
On April 29, the state extended by five years the contracts of 18 self help groups to supply the Take Home Ration (THR), a packet of ready-to-eat meal for children aimed to prevent malnutrition. However, in the regions where additional nutrition for children is most critical, the response to the THR is not enthusiastic. Parents complain the food is of sub-standard quality, and tastes poor. Social groups question the government’s decision to continue with the THR when children prefer cheaper and locally available hot, cooked meals.
“They eat the raw powder since it is sweet. But when I cook it with water and milk, they run away,” Kambdi says. The family’s income is Rs 1,500 per month. She and her labourer husband end up eating the content of the packet, while her children eat rice twice a day.
THR is supplied to children aged six months to three years, to pregnant or lactating mothers, and to malnourished children. One packet costs Rs 4.9. The powder contains wheat, soya chunks, jaggery and peanuts. Instructions on the packet say 260 grams must be given to a child each day. But the monthly ration supplied is only 3 kg, when the requirement would be at least 7.8 kg per month.
About 40 km away in Jawahar taluka, two-year-old Sanjay Bambre has been diagnosed as suffering from moderately acute malnutrition for seven months. Despite four packets of THR every month and admission twice to the Village Child Development Center, his weight hovers at 8.7 kg. “I don’t know if he eats the THR. We can’t go home and check,” anganwadi worker Mala Mukesh says.
In his mud hut, the frail boy is the ninth child in the family. His four siblings died from infections or malnutrition. “He does not like the taste of THR. So I don’t force him,” mother Dhakli Bambre explains. The family, including parents and grandparents, finishes the THR packet in 15 days, while Sanjay eats rice. Sometimes, he spends the day hungry.
In the same village, Raju Bhoir, whose daughter Shanu is aged nine months, says, “We are forcefully given the THR packets even if we refuse them, because the anganwadi has a target to fulfill. I sometimes feed the powder to my chicken if we can’t finish it. Please do something about the food. Its quality is poor. Why will we feed our children poor-quality food?”
The latest ICDS data (till November 2016) shows 6.7 lakh children are malnourished in the state, of which 1.5 lakh are from tribal districts. In Amravati, following a writ petition that questioned the efficacy of the THR, the Bombay High Court passed a ruling in 2011 that allowed only hot cooked meals for children aged less than six. “After the ruling, the number of children coming to anganwadis has increased,” says Purnima Upadhyay, attached with NGO Khoj, adding, “It shows children prefer fresh cooked meals.
The HC ruling has been implemented only in Amravati. In Nandurbar, Yogini Khanolkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan says it has been noticed that the rural and tribal population here prefers hot cooked food over ready-to-eat packets. “The government needs to understand cultural differences of each tribe. Their food choices are different and we cannot implement uniform food for everyone,” she says.
Nandurbar records the state’s highest malnutrition cases. The demand for THR, however, is low, even when parents have no food to give their children. “They are not habituated to the taste of the THR. Children traditionally eat millet, wheat chapattis and dal,” social activist Latika Rajput says.
In Gadchiroli, tribal children consume THR only if a home-cooked meal is not affordable. “The THR consumption is uneven. While it is meant for children, the entire family consumes it during food shortage. How can we ensure only children eat it?” Shubhdha Deshmukh from NGO Amhi Amachya Arogyasathi says.
Palghar’s deputy CEO of ICDS Rajendra Patil told The Indian Express, “This is a state policy that we are implementing. We can’t create different nutrition providers for our district.” He says ICDS officials are yet to receive any complaint from parents about the THR.
On the NGOs’ criticism of THR, Maharashtra’s Secretary for Women and Child Development Vinita Singhal says its quality is being improved to improve acceptance level. “NGOs have raised the issue of the poor quality of food. If that is improved, children will eat THR,” she says.
But Raju Bhoir, father of five daughters, says, “Children will eat what they like. Nothing can be forced.” He cultivates rice on the hill slopes of Jawahar, and uses half the produce for his wife and daughters. The THR powder is fed to the cattle, he adds.