Court-appointed experts have warned the federal Indian government of contempt proceedings over moves to replace hot cooked meals with pre-packaged food for poor children.
Supreme Court commissioners N C Saxena and Harsh Mander have faulted the Women and Child Development ministry for pushing pre-packaged fortified food under the revamped Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme.
"We would like to remind you that this (proposal) would go against the spirit of the Supreme Court order — that contractors shall not be used for supply of nutrition in angandwadis and preferably ICDS funds shall be spent by making use of village communities, self-help groups and Mahila Mandals for buying grain and preparation of meals," they said.
Besides the court, many others within the government have pointed out that pre-packaged food would automatically lead to a few large suppliers, manufacturers and distributors getting a captive and lucrative market across the country.
The two commissioners have also warned that SC orders make it amply clear that the ministry cannot revamp the scheme without discussion with them to ensure there are no violations of court orders. They have cited the 2004 order, which states, "No scheme covered by the orders made by this court shall be discontinued or restricted in any way without prior approval of the court."
They have also expressed themselves strongly against any move to curtail supply of subsidised grain provided to states under the ICDS scheme. Contrary to claims of the WCD ministry, most states provide only hot cooked meals. They have requested the ministry to motivate the rest to fall in line with the court orders instead of promoting a move in contempt of the apex court.
Earlier Times of India had reported that a group of MPs were lobbying on behalf of biscuit manufacturers. After the newspaper expose in January last
, an official had said, "They do not understand the complexities of replacing cooked meal with biscuits. Manufacturers need to see for themselves the groundswell of support for cooking created in rural and semi-rural India.
"But everyone wants a pie of the vastly increased education pie," the official remarked angrily.
The Indian Supreme Court, in 2001, had ordered that all states should provide cooked meals instead of dry rations. In 2004, the court had re-emphasised its earlier ruling stating: "It's the constitutional duty of every state and union territory to implement in letter and spirit (the 2001 ruling)."
In January, the two commissioners had reminded the government that biscuit supply would only mean centralized procurement, resulting in large-scale corruption, whereas the apex court had ordered a ban on use of contractors in supply of supplementary nutrition under government programmes.
Going beyond the logistical problems of replacing cooked meals with biscuits, the commissioners also said that pre-packed food would undercut the social advantages of a decentralised process that involved members of the local community and "provided opportunity for millions of women engaged as cooks and helpers" in preparing the food served in schools.
They also pointed to the Supreme Court ruling that preference should be given to Dalits, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes when appointing cooks and helpers. "Centralised food systems do not address such concerns (of social equity)," the commissioners stressed.