DESPITE A Supreme Court (SC) judgment in February pulling up the Maharashtra government and directing it to immediately cancel tenders awarded to three big contractors for take-home-ration (THR) worth Rs 6,300 crore, the state government has awarded tender to one of the tainted contractors in another major scheme to provide packaged therapeutic food to malnourished children.
Venkateshwara Mahila Audyogik Utpadak Sahakari Sanstha Limited, a “self-help group” that got the contract to supply Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) for malnourished children, was named in a 2012 report by a SC-appointed commission as a front for an agro-based company. “This establishes the de-facto and de-jure ownership of the Mahila Mandals and private agro-companies are by the same family,” the report had stated.
In September 2018, the Pankaja Munde-led Women and Child Development (WCD) department had awarded the contract for an estimated annual cost of Rs 38.4 crore of RUTF to the Latur-based Venkateshwara Mahila Audyogik, along with Mahalaxmi Mahila Audyogik Bal Vikas Bahuddeshiya Sanstha and Mariya Mahila Bachat Gat. The RUTF will be dispensed to treat 85,452 severely acute malnourished children in Maharashtra.
Records show the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which looks after nutrition of children, is paying a higher cost (Rs 26.8 per packet) to these three contractors, as compared to cost quoted by UNICEF-accredited companies in India (Rs 20-22 per packet). Each child, based on doctor’s prescription, will require three packets a day for one to two months, bringing the per month RUTF cost to Rs 4,824 per child.
RUTF, also called Energy Dense Nutritious Food, is a fortified paste of peanuts, oil, sugar, vitamins, milk powder and mineral supplements for treating severely malnourished children aged between six months to six years. Across Maharashtra, there are over 85,000 severely malnourished and over 5.5 lakh moderately malnourished children. With take-home-ration and hot cooked meals served by anganwadi failing in controlling malnutrition, WCD decided to provide therapeutic food to children to lift them from acute malnourishment.
In Ghana, RUTF has put a huge financial burden on government, forcing them to look for local alternatives.
Documents accessed by The Indian Express under Right to Information show the WCD ministry had laid down the condition that only self-help groups, such as mahila mandals/mahila bachat gats and mahila sansthas could apply. The condition flowed from a 2004 Supreme Court direction to all states to remove big contractors and ensure supply of supplementary nutrition from only local groups.
Two private companies (Nuflower and GC Rieber Compact), both UNICEF accredited, were disqualified because they were not self-help groups.
The SC ordered the cancellation of Venkateshwara Mahila Audyogik’s take-home ration contract as it was found to be outsourcing production of these rations to two agro-based companies: Swapnil Agro and Paras Foods. “The so-called mahila mandals who have applied under the tender that has been floated is, in fact, large industrial units and nothing to do with the mahila mandals and self-help groups,” the SC judgment in February said.
Two sub-committees formed by this self-help group constituted family members of Swapnil Agro and Paras Ltd directors. One sub-committee consists of Swati Satishrao Munde, Vanmala Satishrao Munde and Sumalbal Shesherao Munde, who outsource supplementary food from Swapnil Agro Private Ltd, Udgir, in Latur. The director of Swapnil Agro is Vanmala herself and her husband Satishrao Munde. Swati is their daughter.
The second sub-committee of Venkateshwara Mahul Audyogik is handled by Sapana Ujwal Pagariya, Neeta Ulhas Pagariya and Sujata Umesh Pagariya that deal with Paras Food. Paras Food’s proprietor is Ulhas Pagariya, husband of Neeta. His two brothers, Umesh Pagariya and Ujwal Pagariya, are related to Sujata and Sapana, respectively.
The 2012 court-appointed commission also indicted Vyankteshwara Mahila Audyogik Utpadak Sanstha for poor quality food ration.
“This only shows that the government has no intention to do away with contractors. They are not taking the issue of malnourishment seriously,” said Purnima Upadhyay from NGO Khoj.
When contacted, ICDS Commissioner Indra Mallo said, “Based on SC order, we cancelled all take-home-ration contracts with Venkateshwara Audyogik. This is a different tender. If the court directs us, we will cancel this tender too.”
While denying any relation with Swapnil Agro director Satish Munde, in a text message, Pankaja Munde said that the RUTF tender is different from THR and has not been exclusively stopped by the Supreme Court. Referring to the tender awarded to Venkateshwar Mahila Audyogik, she said, “If there is no bachat gat and it is proven, I will question my team who approved them and take action.”
The concept of RUTF remains contentious with a PIL against its implementation pending in the Bombay High Court. While the therapeutic food is commonly used globally to treat only severe malnourishment, Maharashtra now plans to expand its use for moderately malnourished children, thereby increasing contract from 85,000 to 5.5 lakh more children.