Tackle malnutrition with panchayats' help

Tackle malnutrition with panchayats' help

The decentralisation of ICDS is not just practical, it is a constitutional requirement.

Step into any of Karnataka’s glistening malls and you will see a wide range of exciting world cuisine for sale. But away from the glamour, thousands of children across the state do not have enough to eat. It’s a disgrace that more than half of Karnataka’s children under the age of six are malnourished. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), set up by the government to tackle malnutrition has been mired in corruption and controversy. Now with the threat of widespread drought looming over several districts, we can expect further reductions in availability of nutritious food for children. With the state failing to make ICDS work effectively, an alternative implementation framework is desperately needed, which places responsibility for feeding our children in the hands of those best placed to do it – the elected local governments – the panchayats and municipal corporations.

The setting up of a committee headed by Justice N K Patil by the high court is an important step in tackling malnutrition. The committee has identified numerous flaws in ICDS, such as lack of access, inadequate followup and other infrastructural issues. At the same time, an ongoing public interest litigation in the high court provides an unprecedented opportunity to ensure solutions that are comprehensive and equitable. The court recently called for ‘action plans’ for combating urban malnutrition and pilots of the same approach in four rural taluks.

Long-term measures

However, these temporary measures cannot replace the need for a response that can be sustained over the long-term. Any proposed long-term approach cannot continue to rely on the state for direct implementation of ICDS. It requires a shift from centralised implementation to decentralised implementation by elected panchayats and urban local bodies (ULB).

The National Advisory Council (NAC) in its June 2011 report, 'Recommendations for a reformed and strengthened ICDS' suggests such an approach. It suggested a ‘new architecture’ for ICDS that is contextual and flexible with localised planning and budgeting. The NAC argues, “Wherever possible, panchayats should assume responsibility for the operation and management” of anganwadis, which are the front-end for disbursing ICDS food benefits.

The NAC is correct. The entire ICDS programme, including the anganwadis, must be brought under the panchayats and ULBs. As elected representatives closest to the constituencies, they are well-positioned to prepare lists of children and their nutritional status, as well as determining beneficiaries and tracking remedial action taken.
The decentralisation of ICDS is not just practical, it is a constitutional requirement. The 73rd and 74th amendments are unequivocal in their commitment to decentralisation of power to rural and urban local governments respectively. Specifically, planning and implementation of schemes for social justice (including ICDS and healthcare) are entirely devolved.  Evidence shows local governments' willingness to manage ICDS. Twenty two panchayats in Udupi district alone have passed resolutions for running anganwadis.

In Basrur panchayat, Kundapura taluk, community members took charge of the anganwadi, and raised resources to provide nutritional food at the cost of Rs 2 per child daily for 180 days, although their efforts were later scuttled by the department of women and child development who felt threatened. It is critical that such local initiatives do not escape the notice of the courts and of civil society, to enable their replication across the state.

Although panchayats and ULBs have the constitutional authority to manage ICDS, they face many road-blocks in implementation. These include lack of training, insufficient financial devolution, social and cultural limitations. Finally, corruption is a reality at all levels of government – not just in panchayats but also at district and state levels.
The monitoring of panchayats and ULBs as administrators of ICDS is therefore critical. The deputy commissioner (DC), who functions as district magistrate, is well placed to carry out this role. In several areas the DCs already have oversight over schemes like Ashraya housing.

The need for monitoring, however, does not obviate the fact that panchayats and ULBs are best suited to implement ICDS in the long term. It is local bodies who know which families need assistance and can effectively deliver that support. It is local bodies who are the first to know if the quality of food has declined, because it is their children who eat it. It is only by moving towards implementation of ICDS by panchayats and ULBs that Karnataka can comply with the mandate of the 73rd constitutional amendment and other relevant laws, and ensure that malnutrition becomes as unheard of in all of Karnataka.

(The writers are associated with the organisation, Concerned for Working Children)