India is supposed to be the biggest provider of free foods to its needy children and vulnerable segments of the population funded by the government. It is estimated that India spends annually about Rs 27000 crore on various feeding programs across the country. Some of the schemes include integrated Child Development services (ICDS), Nutrition program for adolescent girls, Nutrition Advocacy and Awareness Generation Program, Follow up action for National Nutrition Policy of 1993, Nutrition programs of ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Iron-Folic Acid supplementation for Pregnant Women, Vitamin A Supplementation for Children of 9-36 months, National Iodine Deficiency Disorder Control Program, Department of Elementary School and Literacy programs and Midday Meal for primary School Children. No wonder there are frequent criticisms regarding the effectiveness of these programs as multiple agencies are involved in administering different programs and an average citizen thinking that his money is being wasted.
While criticism of any efforts is welcome as long as they are constructive, the logistics of these operations are so gigantic that there can be slip ups and mishaps periodically. Most trenchant critics point out the pilferage of funds from these schemes through political-bureaucratic-contractors nexus about which governments at the center as well as at the State levels do not seem to be doing enough to make them more transparent. The net effect is that many deserving and needy beneficiaries do not get their entitlement. Probably by far the most visible nutrition program is the mammoth school feeding project benefiting millions of children, most of them being considered poor in economic terms.
Government scheme that supports the mid day meal program costs about Rs 13,215 crore annually benefiting 12 crore children in 12.5 lakh schools across the country. According to some surveys one of the most desirable objectives of this scheme viz improving attendance in the primary schools has been well served resulting in progressive reduction in illiterate population in the country. Whether the nutrition status of the children also showed any significant improvement is a matter of debate. What is incongruous in this program is that it does not make any distinction between "haves" and "have nots" as the food is forced on every body irrespective of the income of their parents. Government is squarely responsible for this situation as it has not been able to generate and document the income profiles of families of children attending various schools. Naturally the resources are spread thin and impact is less than optimum.
The eternal debate about the delivery systems most appropriate for the schools will never cease. There are strong protagonists advocating freshly cooked foods to made locally for feeding while many experts feel "ready to eat" (RTE) formulated food products in safe pilfer proof packs with long life are more suitable for mass feeding. Both sides have sufficient justification for their respective stands. It is not realized that no one solution can fit the exacting needs of this program. Probably a dual mode may be the alternative with those schools having sufficient staff, facilities and clean water provision going in for fresh cooking while schools in remote areas may have to adjust to RTE foods.
A honest citizen in this country may ask the question as to why public money must be spent on such programs with doubtful results. If the money is rightly used benefiting the most needy, no none would grudge such investments for a good future. Is there any alternative funding source that can be tapped? In this context what comes to mind is the socially relevant spending (CSR) being enforced for corporate bodies beginning April 1, 2014 under the Companies Act 2013, Section 135. Under this mandatory provision any industrial group or entrepreneur engaged in commercial activity with more than Rs 1000 crore annual turn over or Rs 500 crore net worth or profit of Rs 5 crore has to set aside 2% of its average profit during the previous 3 years for socially relevant activities. According to tentative estimates there are over 8000 companies which will have to shell out some thing like Rs 15-20 thousand crore each year. Probably this fund could be dedicated exclusively to improve the health of children below the age of 6 years as this is a critical stage of growth when brain development is completed and the future health status of these kids are decided. Lot of planning has to go into this suggestion for making it a workable plan with sufficient sustaining capacity.
A possible way out is entrusting this task to a industry supported body like FICCI or ASSOCHAM or any others managed by the industry to run all nutrition programs in stead of the governments doing it. All know that government machinery with its gargantuan machinery is like a slow moving Elephant and whatever it does is neither accountable nor time bound! Government personnel are mostly officious with no work culture while politicians who control them come and go with least commitment. A body like National Nutrition Food Corporation run with the CSR funds managed like a non-profit company with majority industry representatives and some government nominees can be mandated to run the program across the country. While core fundings will come from CSR contributions from the industry as per the Company Act 2013, liberal voluntary contributions from any quarters eligible for tax exemption can boost the resources available for the program.