Don’t let down the children

With worrying levels of stunting and lack of healthy weight among children revealed by the fourth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for 15 States, Budget 2016-17 was expected to provide some remedies. To begin with, it could have raised funding for the flagship nutrition programme, the Integrated Child Development Services. Instead, the Budget has dealt the ICDS a blow in the form of a 7 per cent cut over the revised estimate of expenditure for the previous year, of about Rs.15,500 crore. This follows the pattern of Budget 2015-16 which cut the outlay initially, but with provision of some supplementary grants later in the year. Such an approach to a welfare programme that is so crucial to the health of the next generation reflects a poor set of development priorities. It also defies economic reasoning, given that India has been growing steadily after liberalisation and has the wherewithal to substantially raise social sector expenditure annually. To their credit, several States have used the ICDS to improve health and welfare by providing good supplementary nutrition to children under six; the support of the Supreme Court has also helped in ensuring that commercial interests are unable to corner the funds, and there is provision for community oversight. The Ministry of Women and Child Development must focus on States such as Bihar and Madhya Pradesh with a large burden of stunted, wasted and underweight children as revealed by the latest NFHS data. Figures for all States together will give a full picture, including best practices.

Empirical evidence on the effectiveness of supplementary nutrition should prompt the Centre to enhance funding for the ICDS. Data from an earlier round of the NFHS show that when nutrition is available every day to children under two, there is a marked positive effect on their height, particularly for girls. Such early interventions have a life-long impact, in the form of higher productivity and earnings. Scholars have, however, found a tendency within the ICDS in some States to neglect the needs of children less than two years old. Only 6 per cent in this age group were getting adequate daily nutrition a decade ago. The more progressive States have corrected the bias, with striking results. There is a clear lesson here for others, and it is incumbent on the Central Ministry to monitor the implementation of the scheme. It can take the support of local communities and self-help groups, as provided for in the Supreme Court judgment of 2004, to ensure that wholesome cooked meals are provided and contractors are not engaged. More recently, the court wanted high standards of hygiene and nutrition maintained in ICDS centres. Finance Minister Arjun Jaitley has missed the opportunity in the Budget to secure the future of India’s children, but he can still make amends. Raising the outlay, instituting a mechanism to heighten awareness among communities in less developed States and achieving full coverage are needed remedies.