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Stealing from the mouths of babes

By Kathyayini Chamaraj

A chronicle of the civil society action that exposed the shocking scam in Karnataka which saw government functionaries colluding with industry to supply inedible food packets to children in anganwadis, regardless of the fact that children are dying of malnutrition and starvation in the state

Hunger Starvation

The minister for child development in Karnataka became (in)famous for watching porn on a mobile phone in the legislative assembly even as babies in his state starved to death. He was not the only one playing Nero. His officers in the department of women and child development (DW&CD) were buying gold, silver and diamonds, opening numerous bank accounts and lockers, buying land and houses, and riding around in lavish cars with money meant for food for starving children. The contractor appointed by the DW&CD to supply food to anganwadis and take-home rations to mothers and children was no better: the food he supplied was of such dubious quality that women sold it as cattle fodder (Deccan Herald,April 5 and 6, 2012).

When the prime minister said recently that the level of malnutrition in the country was a “national shame”, he might well have been thinking about the siphoning of crores of rupees meant for the supply of pre-processed food packets to anganwadis in Karnataka, a state that is otherwise a model for neo-liberal growth (see story on malnutrition in Raichur and other districts of Karnataka,

The issue would not have come to the public’s attention but for the fact that Ambanna Arolikar and J B Raju, activists from Samajika Parivartana Janandalona, led reporters from TV9 to the homes of severely malnourished children in Raichur district in September 2011. After witnessing horrifying scenes of the dying children on television, B L Patil, an advocate and member of Athani Vimochana Sangha, in Belgaum, wrote to the Karnataka High Court on September 23, 2011, asking the court to initiate action. The high court converted the letter into a public interest litigation (WP38157/2011) and issued notices to the government on October 4, 2011. It directed the DW&CD, on October 21, 2011, to set up an inquiry committee comprising government officials and civil society representatives.

A number of officials tried to dismiss the deaths as the result of consanguineous marriage despite information provided by the DW&CD itself that 11,35,000 children, out of those attending anganwadis, are malnourished in Karnataka. Of these, over 70,000 are acutely malnourished. Karnataka ranks 11th in the India State Hunger Index. According to the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), the infant mortality rate in the state for children below one year is 43 deaths per 1,000 births and 55 deaths per 1,000 births for children under the age of five. More than half the women in Karnataka (52%) have anaemia; 63% of pregnant women have mild anaemia. The state economic survey report of 2012 reveals that poverty in Karnataka is the highest among the southern states.

Reports on malnutrition in the state by Clifton D’Rozario, state advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioners in the Right to Food case in early-2011, confirmed the dismissal of state officials of the plight of undernourished children. Details of the scam surrounding pre-packaged food have only now come to light through Lokayukta officials, although complaints were sent by the parents of children and workers of the contractor supplying food to anganwadis to the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) in 2010. The KSCPCR forwarded the complaints to the Lokayukta, which ordered an investigation into the issue.  

According to some parents of children at anganwadis, the food packets supplied to anganwadis by Christy Friedgram Industries (CFI), the private company contracted to supply food, was often so stale that children would complain of stomach ache, diarrhoea or vomiting after eating it. Supply of the packaged food was itself in violation of a Supreme Court order that fresh food should be served in anganwadis. The private company flourished even as the public sector Karnataka State Agro Corn Processing Ltd (KSACPL),  which supplied energy foods to anganwadis until 2006 , was shut down in March 2012 following declared losses; its employees were asked to go home. Significantly, KSACPL started making losses in 2001 , after the DW&CD handed over 50% of the energy food supply contract to CFI.

CFI was given a five-year monopoly contract for Rs 600 crore by the DW&CD in 2007 to produce packet food for all anganwadis through self-help groups -- again, in violation of a Supreme Court order that contractors should not be involved in supplying food to anganwadis. The company set up Mahila Supplementary Nutrition Production and Training Centres (MSNPTCs) in 139 of the 176 talukas. Company workers say that illiterate women were deliberately hired for the job so they could be duped and paid only wages, despite also being entitled to a part of the profits. The company reportedly manipulated the quantity of food supplied and charged the DW&CD extra money. Unnamed Karnataka Lokayukta officials stated to a magazine, in April 2012, that several DW&CD officials, from the taluka-level upwards, would unerringly collect money, often as much as Rs 15-20 lakh per month, from CFI’s office in Bangalore, turning a blind eye to the company’s misdemeanours. A more egregious chain could not have been built from top to bottom to steal food from the mouths of babes.

The high court’s directive to the DW&CD, as a result of the PIL, set in motion a unique process of civil society engagement with the state government to stop the organised loot of food and money meant for starving children. The committee, formed on October 26, 2011, set up three sub-committees on October 31, 2011: one on health and nutrition, the second on reaching and bringing all underprivileged children under the scheme, and the third on convergence and monitoring . Each of them completed their work in record time and a consolidated report was submitted on January 14, 2012 .

The first sub-committee outlined a fine protocol asking for immediate identification and creation of a database of all malnourished children across the state and their referral for appropriate feeding and medical treatment. The second sub-committee stressed the need to establish anganwadis in all SC/ST colonies and tribal hamlets in line with the Supreme Court ruling; the need to identify all disabled mothers and children and ensure them access to anganwadis and supplementary nutrition; to establish anganwadis for migrant and construction workers using funds from the construction workers’ welfare fund, etc. The third sub-committee outlined steps to bring in a convergence between various departments -- agriculture, food and civil supplies, health, labour, etc -- to find long-term solutions to malnutrition by addressing the crisis in agriculture, redefining the poverty line to cover all basic needs, universalising and enhancing public distribution system (PDS) entitlements, ensuring a living wage in order to increase people’s purchasing power, etc .

The committee deliberations, of which this writer was a part , exposed the stark divergence between the perspectives of civil society activists and that of government functionaries on the issue.

Activists highlighted the paucity of anganwadis in several SC/ST colonies and inadequate coverage of anganwadis in urban areas, especially Bangalore, despite Supreme Court orders calling for universalisation of the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) programme. While accepting the shortfall in Bangalore (the 1,873 anganwadis here cover 36,115 or a mere 18% of children, according to the Bangalore Urban DC) , government functionaries claimed there was no need for anganwadis in certain areas, as “mothers here do not send their children to anganwadis”. Civil society activists pointed out that the anganwadi timings did not suit many working women. That was the reason they made an older girl-child stay at home to look after her younger siblings. Activists also stressed that unless all anganwadis are converted into anganwadi-cum-daycare centres that stay open until working women return from work, the erroneous notion that there are enough anganwadis will continue.

Till recently, the state government was spending about Rs 4 (Rs 2 by the state plus Rs 2 by the Centre) per child per day in an anganwadi. And the food included pre-packaged food of dubious nutritive value. Activists demanded that fresh milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables be included in anganwadi meals if a dent is to be made in levels of child malnutrition. And that a budget high enough to fulfil this requirement be sought from the finance department. In reply, the joint director in charge of the ICDS asked: “Shall we ask for a raise of Rs 2 from the finance department?” That amount would not be enough even to provide a glass of milk, an egg or a banana let alone all three, given today’s prices. Another senior bureaucrat questioned: “Can we provide fruit and vegetables in all anganwadis? Is it feasible?” This, when 72% of fruit and vegetables grown in the country is wasted (according to a secretary in the Department of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Ministry of Agriculture, at a CII conference , reported in DNA, May 12, 2008).  Nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables are being ploughed back into the soil instead of being fed to children who are stunted and malnourished from lack of micronutrients. If officers entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that children are fed nutritious food and grow up healthy, have such a mindset, how can we expect them to plead the case for more funds for children to the finance department?

Another senior bureaucrat claimed: “There are strict central guidelines which have to be followed under the ICDS and these cannot be changed at will by the states.” The states are happy to invoke the sacrosanct nature of central guidelines when it is to their advantage financially, and harp on the ‘federal’ character of the nation and the ‘freedom of states to frame their own policies’ when it doesn’t suit them, as in the case of the Lokpal bill. This official had to be told that the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Maharasthra supplement the Centre’s contribution of Rs 2 per child with their own funds,  spending Rs 9-11 per child -- much more than the Karnataka state government does.

Though children in anganwadis are supposed to be weighed every month, at a meeting of the committee on January 11, 2012 , department officials demanded 45 days to weigh all children coming to anganwadis and six months to weigh children not attending anganwadis. Though the DW&CD claimed to be providing eggs and milk to severely malnourished children after reprimands from the high court at almost every hearing, civil society members proved that this was not happening. An altered menu, including rava laddu (sweetened semolina balls) , puliyogare (rice laced with tamarind ) and lemon rice was introduced for children in anganwadis across the state . When asked what micronutrients these calorie-rich foods contained, officials shouted the questioners down calling them eternal cynics who never appreciated anything the government did. Meanwhile, the department which had stated that there were about 70,000 severely malnourished children in Karnataka suddenly claimed that the figure had come down to 61,000!

Civil society organisations such as those belonging to the Samajika Parivartana Janandolana, Right to Food Campaign and the Janaarogya Andolana-Karnataka (JAAK) took on the task of weighing children in anganwadis in their work areas . They surveyed a total of 577 children in 12 districts of Karnataka. Shockingly, they found that there were no weighing scales for children aged three to six at the anganwadis. Even zero-to-three-year-olds were not being weighed regularly. Even when they were, several anganwadis did not have charts to plot the children’s growth. If they had the growth charts, they either did not plot the growth curves on them or they did not have sufficient training or knowledge on how to plot them. So much for monitoring this most essential indicator to determine malnutrition! These children will never receive the medical attention they need or the additional nutrition at nutrition rehabilitation centres (NRC) under the Balsanjeevani scheme.

What was also highlighted was the fact that doctors from primary healthcare centres (PHCs) did not visit anganwadis due to lack of vehicles at the PHC.

After the consolidated recommendations of the three sub-committees were submitted to the DW&CD, the high court again rapped the government, on April 3, 2012, for filing a ‘political speech’ as its affidavit instead of a ‘report of action taken’ on the recommendations. The court set up a nine-member committee under the chairmanship of Justice N K Patil to prepare and submit an action plan to the high court by June 15, 2012 . The committee submitted its interim report on June 11, 2012.

Before submitting the report, the Justice N K Patil Committee conducted divisional-level meetings to which all district collectors (DCs) and CEOs were invited. At one such meeting in Bangalore, on April 30, 2012, DC after DC reeled off statistics on the number of malnourished children in their districts and the number of anganwadis without buildings, separate kitchens, worktops for cooking, toilets, drinking water, electricity, etc. Now that anganwadi timings have been extended to 4.00 pm, with only one meal being provided during this entire period, the DC of Chitradurga district wondered whether the department itself was not abetting malnutrition! He also openly called the allocation of Rs 4 per child “a joke”, and asked how he could be held responsible for malnutrition in his district when all the decisions on what, how, and how much to give children were being taken in a highly centralised manner by the heads of the DW&CD in Bangalore. He was being given only the responsibility, with no powers to decide anything.

Total number of anganwadis in Karnataka



Number of anganwadis with their own building



Number of anganwadis with kitchens



Number of anganwadis with water facilities



Number of anganwadis with electricity



Meanwhile, as serious deliberations continue over the survival of Karnataka’s children, the party in power in the state is busy squabbling over who should be chief minister and is engrossed in strategising its own survival. It is only the whip of the high court and the push for positive action from civil society that have forced the modern-day Neros to stop ‘fiddling’ while children lie dying. The minister who was watching porn was forced to resign. Bribe-taking officials have been suspended and the gold, silver and diamonds they had amassed have been seized by the Lokayukta. And CFI has had to give up its lucrative contract of supplying ‘fake’ food .  

(Kathyayini Chamaraj is executive trustee of CIVIC Bangalore and a member of the Right to Food Campaign-Karnataka)

Infochange News & Features, June 2012