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IN THE MEDIA: ICDS: Investment or Expenditure

Three things that happened around the beginning of this year should have made a difference for the over 47 per cent children in India who are malnourished. 

Firstly, on December 13, 2006, the Supreme Court passed landmark orders on writ petition number 196 of 2001 (PUCL vs GoI and others) making it mandatory for the government to establish ‘anganwadi’ centres under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) if there are more than 40 children under six in an area and a demand is raised. 

Secondly, just a few months before that, the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS3) found that in all children under the age of three, over one-third are stunted (34.3 per cent), two children out of every five are underweight and almost three-fourths of them are anaemic.

But the more startling figure, that justifies the PM’s letter (details in the next paragraph), comes out in comparison with the second National Family Health Survey (NFHS2) carried out in 1998-99. Children under three who are underweight dropped just one percentage point (from 47 per cent to 46 per cent) from NFHS2 to NFHS3. 

And finally, in January this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did something unprecedented — in a strongly worded letter to state chief ministers, he said that “a massive programme to improve health and nutrition had failed.” He said that the ICDS, the biggest such programme in the world, had been “poorly implemented” and the figures are “startling” and called for “urgent action”. 

Activists like those belonging to the Right to Food campaign have called for “urgent action” through the “Universalisation of ICDS with Quality”. As I said in the beginning, this should have made a difference. But it did not. 

In India we get easily tricked into believing that laws, ordinances and speeches are the reality. Nothing moves forward without a budgetary allocation in the Union Budget. The political will of the country’s leadership is best reflected when the finance minister stands up to make the Budget speech in Parliament. So, the speech activists can only express dismay that “the allocation for ICDS (Rs 4,761 crore) has barely increased in real terms, and is virtually unchanged as a proportion of GDP.” 

“Universalisation with quality” of the ICDS needs investments — as much as Rs 9,600 crore which is recommended by the National Advisory Council. One wonders if this has taken a back seat because children constitute an unproductive section of our economy. 

There is a definite reluctance to convert rhetoric into a budgetary allocation for the universalisation of ICDS. Can’t we consider budgetary allocation into ICDS as an investment into our growth? The World Bank reports that every year the Indian economy leaks $10 billion due to malnutrition. Can’t this allocation be seen as an investment to plug at least a part of this leak? Maybe the fact that addressing malnutrition would add a 2-3 per cent growth to our GDP growth figures will motivate this investment. 

Would the much acclaimed goal of “inclusive growth” reflected in the National Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance and the Planning Commission’s work on the Eleventh Five-year Plan, include these children too? The fact of the matter is if we do not include these 47 per cent of the children who depend on quality ICDS, ‘growth’ may never be inclusive. We may even miss the dream of a double-digit growth or, if we attain the dream, it would be at best the dream of a few! 

Swift action is needed if we must produce a growth that has depth and integrity. Political rhetoric must be converted into political will, if change must happen — our children just cannot wait. 

This article appeared in the Business Standard on World Food Day