March 14, 2021 9:40:04 pm
At least eight schemes of the state government related to children’s nutrition and health, were either suspended or saw no expenditure due to closure of schools and Anganwadi centres (AWCs) owing to the Covid-19 pandemic in the financial year 2020-21, stated the Socio-Economic Review (SER) that was made public Friday.
The mid-day meal (MDM) scheme, which provides a cooked meal to students of primary and upper primary classes, benefited an average of 39.97 lakh children of 34,307 primary schools in the financial year 2019-20. However, during the lockdown, which saw the closure of schools and Anganwadi centres, the money was disbursed as food security allowance under the scheme.
Gujarat, which implemented the scheme in 1984, was the second state in the country to launch MDM. Till December last year, of the sanctioned budget of nearly Rs 1,098 crore, approximately 50 per cent (Rs 549 crore) was disbursed to 50.29 lakh beneficiaries of 32,731 primary schools as food security allowance for 2020-21 fiscal.
In December 2020, the Gujarat High Court had taken a suo motu cognizance of a report published in The Indian Express about a survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and the UNICEF across 375 urban families in Ahmedabad that had found that several families were unable to access mid-day meal benefits or payment in lieu of it. After the state government had claimed that the sample size for the survey was too small, the court had disposed of the matter while observing: “It is only on account of their survey and the article published in The Indian Express newspaper that this court came to know about the hardships and the problems that few families had to face during the period of lockdown. However, at the same time, the state government also seems to have put in strenuous efforts to ease the hardships of various families during the period…”.
Owing to school closures during the pandemic, no expenditure was incurred under four key schemes pertaining to nutrition to students, the report stated. These include the ‘Tithi Bhojan’ scheme that involves the local community sponsoring food for children on different occasions. In 2019-20, 40.47 lakh students in Gujarat benefited from the scheme and a contribution worth Rs 19.20 crore was collected.
The ‘Anna Sangam Scheme’, which provides 60 kg of free foodgrain to parents of tribal girl students up to class 8 who register attendance above 70 per cent, also remained suspended during the pandemic. The ‘Sukhadi Project’, a fortified sweet aimed at enhancing calorie and protein intake, and ‘Dudh Sanjivani Scheme’, which provides 200 ml of flavoured milk five days a week in anganwadis, saw no spending in 2020-21 fiscal. For the ‘Dudh Sanjivani Scheme’, an average of 13.07 lakh beneficiaries were covered during 2019-20.
The report states, “Due to the epidemic of Covid-19, schools have been closed as per the decision taken by the government. So, in the year 2020-21, an expenditure has not been incurred in the all above schemes (Tithi Bhojan, Anna Sangam and Sukhadi project).”
A take-home meal provision of a ‘third meal of a 50-gram laddoo’, aimed at improving the nutrition level among registered, moderate and underweight children under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, too remained suspended owing to the closure of AWCs. The sweet is given apart from the morning snacks and afternoon meal at AWCs for six days a week. During the fiscal of 2019-20, a total of 71,306 beneficiaries were covered under this scheme.
Not only children, pregnant women and lactating mothers, too, lost out on nutritional benefits from government schemes owing to the pandemic. The Poshan Sudha Yojana that aims to reduce the prevalence of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and improve the nutritional status of pregnant women and lactating mothers and pregnancy outcomes, saw no beneficiary in 2020-21 owing to the closure of AWCs against the total 24,665 women who had benefited from the scheme in 2019-20. The beneficiaries under this scheme are provided every day with one meal, iron folic acid tablets and calcium tablets at the AWC.
Infant and Young Child Feeding training (IYCF), a health department intervention that looks at continued breastfeeding and infant nutrition to reduce infant mortality, too, was halted. The SER report states, “In the year of 2020-21, all the training centres have been closed as a precautionary measure in view of the global pandemic Covid-19. Therefore, in the year 2020-21, infant and young children’s feeding training could not be done.”
Along with nutrition, screening activities to determine health status in children — either school-going or those aged up to five years — took a hit. Screening programme for severe acute malnourished (SAM) children up to five years of age, under the ‘Kuposhan Mukt Gujarat Mahabhiyan’, saw 40.56 lakh being screened by field-level workers during 2019-20 of whom 3.46 lakh (8.53%) children were identified as SAM. However, in 2020-21 (until December 2020) a total of 31.62 lakh children were screened of the targeted 49.48 lakh children. Among those screened, 1.66 lakh (5.25%) children were identified as SAM.
Regular health department schemes also took a beating. While nearly 7.52 lakh cataract operations were conducted in 2019-20, when it had exceeded its target of 4 lakh such operations, 2020-21 fiscal was the state perform only 78,723 cataract operations until December last year. Under the School Health Eye Screening Programme, 79,506 free spectacles were provided to children in 2019-20 while only 1,080 children received the same in 2020-21.
School Health Check-up Programme, the benefits of which are extended from primary to secondary and higher secondary students, saw 1.60 crore children up to 18 years checked medically in 2019-20. However, “due to Covid-19, no children have been examined under the School Health Programme”, until October last year for the financial year 2020-21, the socio-economic review report stated.
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