Food for thought

Aashish Gupta
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Nutrition takes a back seat in Assam’s Chirang district as midday meals fail to reach primary school children

In a dismal state:The anganwadi.
In a dismal state:The anganwadi.

“When there is rice, there are no funds. When there are funds, we don’t get rice,” says Swmsri Musahary, the midday meal cook in Serfanguri Lower Primary School of Assam’s Sidli block in Chirang district, referring to the usual state of affairs in the area. Midday meals have not been delivered in the schools of this block in Assam since the beginning of this year. For almost four months now, “there has been no release of funds to buy dal and oil for meals in the school,” says Swmsri.

The state of nutrition services under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme is not much better. In the financial year 2012-13, grains and pulses for the Supplementary Nutrition Programme were delivered only for about 79 days in the district, when they were supposed to be delivered for 300 days. Since the end of February this year, the block’s anganwadi workers have not had rice, pulses, sugar, dry peas or suji to prepare cooked meals for children under six years of age.

Reasons for the tardy performance of the two schemes in Chirang are similar -- administrative delays, late sanctions, and problems related to release of funds and grains from one level of the government to another. The non-sanctioning of funds by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) since January this year was responsible for the block’s inability to provide cooked midday meals to school going children, according to Rajnath Basumatary, the Block Education Officer (BEO) for Sidli. The BEO, however claimed that the sanction was finally made in late March 2013, and showed cheques prepared by him to sanction funds to all the schools in the block. He gave the assurance that midday meals will resume soon. Even then, other problems exist -- Kiran Basumatary, headmaster for Besurbadi Lower Primary School claims that it takes at least a month to encash the cheque because of problems at the local rural banking branch. Saifuddin Ahmed, head-teacher for the Nangalbhanga Lower Primary School claims that he would have to open a new back account to encash the cheque – a process that will delay the resumption of midday meals further.

Similarly, the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) Syameswar Musahary, responsible for implementation of the ICDS programme in Sidli, expressed his inability to do anything about the defaults in the delivery of meals through the supplementary nutrition programme. Since the beginning of the 2012-13 financial year, all he had received was enough rice, pulses and condiments to deliver nutritious meals for a total of 79 days in the block. The CDPO showed “Release Orders” received by his office from the BTC, which are used to transfer grains or funds from a higher to a lower level of the government. In 2012-13, they received only two release orders -- the first one sanctioned rice, masur dal and dry peas for 35 days, and the second one sanctioned rice and dal enough to last only 44 days in the block’s anganwadis. The last order was received on December 20, 2012 by the block. Interestingly, these release orders were delayed themselves -- they showed that grain that was received by the BTC in the year 2011-12 was being released by them to lower levels of government as late as December 2012.

Unlike in the case of midday meals, however, officials at the block were clueless when the Supplementary Nutrition Programme would resume. Nor did they have an idea of the whereabouts of the rest of the grains and pulses, which should have been received by the BTC from the Central government. Even the delivery of supplementary nutrition for 79 days seemed an improvement to the CDPO, “the year before that was even worse.”



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