The Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) Program, with a massive funding of Rs 6500 crore from Government of India and spanning all the states in the country, is considered the largest child feeding project in the world with a net-work of kitchens equipped with the barest of bare paraphernalia to serve warm foods to children and vulnerable women. The beneficiaries include 6.86 crore children of age up to 6 years and 1.45 crore pregnant and lactating mothers. It is a tragedy of monumental proportion that the resources earmarked for this noble cause have not made any dent on the targeted group of children and nothing seems to have changed even after a decade of operation of this much touted development program. No less an authority than the very Ministry for Women and Child development admitted that the program had very slow impact on physical growth and development of children and found that lack of provision for incorporating micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals in the prepared foods supplied at the feeding centers as a reason for under performance of this well intentioned scheme.
According to the reputed International Food Policy Research Institute in USA, while China has been able to reduce sharply the extent of child malnutrition during nineteen nineties, India lags behind even the sub-Saharan poor nations, in terms of the number of impoverished children left behind in our relentless pursuit of wealth. Despite the robust economic growth, 42.5% of the child population under the age of 5 years in the country remain under weight, a true reflection of the magnitude of malnutrition prevailing that has disastrous consequences in terms of illness, morbidity, stunted growth and vulnerability to death. World Food Program claims that a quarter of world's hungry people live in India, a national shame brought upon ourselves by the human failure in managing our own affairs logically, rationally and honestly.
The present system of providing some staples like rice, dal etc to the kitchens under the ICDS program and 'hoping' that every thing will be alright is just not working, if we go by the results achieved so far. Do we need more time to come to a conclusion that the present 'hot' food concept just will not work in a country like India where corruption knows no boundaries and pilferage is rampant, the sufferers being the poor beneficiaries in whose name unscrupulous 'managers' are lining their pockets? Country must wake up and force the governments to rework out the strategy to ensure 100% of the beneficiaries targeted are physically covered without any diversion of funds or input materials provided. How can this be achieved?
The processed food industry in India can provide the right answer. It has the technologies, resources and infrastructure required for manufacture and necessary distribution network to deliver the foods to every nook and corner of the country. If there is a lack of appropriate technological wherewithal, the two food research and development institutions, DFRL and CFTRI, funded fully by the taxpayer of this country must be asked to shut down all their existing projects and take up a 'mission mode' endeavor to evolve appropriate products and processes for meeting the needs of the ICDS and midday school feeding programs. The famous ENERGY FOOD product developed and productionized in seventies was unjustifiably side lined due to political considerations though it happened to be the most balanced and lowest costing food product in the world. Which food can deliver 16 g of proteins and 360 kC of energy plus the micro nutrients for a meager cost of Rs 2, as was done with energy food earlier, when subsidized input materials from the PDS were provided? What about the indirect benefits flowing out of a program of this dimension, based on industry processed products proven for their organoleptic and nutritional qualities, such as opportunities for employment, expansion of industrial base, more hygienic food, elimination of hazards of food contamination and poisoning, lesser wastage, saving of water and many others?
The criticism that Energy Food was a dry product and beneficiaries were 'bored' with its monotonous taste can be avoided to a great extent by diversifying the product profile and opting for different products and technologies. In a country like the US, subsidized canteens provide snacks and meals operated by private caterers but the school system there is more organized and dispersed with school transportation facilities provided by the county administration making the system work efficiently. The burden of cooking on the school staff must be avoided as teaching is the task entrusted to them which will get hijacked if non-teaching work load is thrust on them. A 3-party joint strategy involving government, industry and the R & D organizations must be evolved to put on track the derailed feeding program and make sure the investments lead to tangible long term results. performance of the Industry, if roped into the school feeding program, must be measured in terms of well defined development yardsticks vis-a-vis the beneficiaries coming under their area of operation. The onus will be on it to show results, in stead of the teachers or the school management. Let us strive to achieve our full potential and climb out of the bottom basket of those nations with highest Global Hunger Index where India is presently consigned based on its past performance, along with some of the poorest countries in the world in sub-Saharan Africa.This is the least we owe to the fellow citizens of this country who are unfavorably placed in life due to circumstances, not of their choice.