Yogi Adityanath govt has given contracts to same firms it accused of supplying poor quality food to children.
New Delhi: Last year, the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh flagged an alleged scam it said had been brewing for decades in the name of providing nutrition to children.
The government had alleged in a white paper that contracts worth crores of rupees to provide holistic nutrition to children under the central government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme were repeatedly being given to private companies in violation of norms.
The contracts, it alleged, were given in an opaque, suspicious manner, and the central government’s guidelines to give these contracts to self-help groups (SHGs) and mahila mandals were not followed.
It also said that beneficiaries — infants, children and pregnant and lactating mothers — were unhappy with the supplies being given to them.
Immediately, the contracts were suspended, giving rise to hope that the Centre’s guidelines for the ICDS scheme would finally be followed.
But this only lasted for three or four months, and soon enough, the contracts were once again handed out to 14 private companies, including late liquor baron Ponty Chadha’s Great Value Foods, an investigation by ThePrint has found.
This year, the contract for the supplies was worth Rs 15,000 crore, a part of which went to Great Value Foods.
Now, in a course-correction of sorts, the state cabinet has decided that SHGs will be given contracts in 22 of the state’s 75 districts. But that just addresses a part of the problem.
What has been happening?
Under the ICDS scheme, which was first launched by the central government in 1975, children in the age group of 0-6 are given supplementary nutrition in the form of take-home rations and hot-cooked meals.
Of these, the companies mentioned above have been providing take-home rations, while the hot-cooked meals scheme has failed to take off in UP.
In fact, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party government had launched the scheme, but as soon as Adityanath’s BJP government came to power, it shut it down. Now, it has decided to revive this scheme through SHGs.
Way back in 2004, the Supreme Court had said private contractors would be banned from supplying supplementary nutrition, and that mahila mandals or SHGs should be encouraged to supply meals at anganwadis.
But despite the order, contracts were allegedly tailored to benefit private companies over local self-help groups.
Shatrughan Singh, the director of ICDS in Uttar Pradesh, told ThePrint that the course correction had begun.
“The order was passed on 3 December by the UP cabinet, and we will now provide hot-cooked food in 22 districts through self-help groups. There were many wrongs in the system that are being righted,” Singh said.
However, asked why contracts for the take-home rations were still being given to companies, Singh said: “There is a ban on contractors, and we have ended the contractor raj These are registered companies, not contractors.”
When tenders for the contract were issued in 2017, apparently in compliance with Supreme Court orders, the UP government said that a sum of Rs 5.59 crore must be deposited as security deposit, a criteria only large firms could meet.
ThePrint reached chief secretary Anup Chandra Pandey for the government’s comments for this report but he did not respond to phone calls or queries sent by email.
Allegations of political patronage
Retired IAS officer Surya Pratap Singh, who served as UP’s principal secretary for public enterprises, blamed political patronage for what he called a “scam” favouring private players.
“The contract for the entire state during Mayawati, Mulayam (Singh Yadav) and Akhilesh (Yadav)’s time was with Ponty Chadha. The present government announced that it would end Chadha’s company’s monopoly in the state, but it continues to have part of the contract to this day,” he alleged.
Surya Pratap Singh is not the first to raise questions over how India’s most populous state has administered the programme.
In 2012, a panel appointed by the Supreme Court to examine the status of ICDS in four states, including UP, had said in its report that the quality of food being provided was substandard.
The report, which was based on lab tests by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, said: “Both the Uttar Pradesh samples of panjiri mix supplied as take-home rations fortified blended pre-mixes to different categories of ICDS beneficiaries fail to meet the prescribed standards in the agreements signed by the contractors.
“In states like Uttar Pradesh, the supplementary nutrition has been contracted out to private companies like Great Value Foods, promoted by Gurdeep Singh (Ponty) Chadha in complete violation of the Supreme Court’s orders.”
A year earlier, in 2011, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) conducted an investigation in Gorakhpur, which found that the food provided by Chadha’s company came up short on most fronts.
“The quality of ready-to-eat food provided by Great Value foods is ordinary and does not seem to contain the ingredients claimed,” the NHRC had said.
Yet, since 2002, Chadha’s company has repeatedly received contracts.
In 2016, a survey report by the UP government found that over 15 lakh children coming to anganwadis in the state were malnourished. So, a decision was taken to feed the children panjiri for a period of four months, and study their progress. Four months later, it was found that the number of malnourished children had shot up to approximately 22 lakh.
ThePrint visited the office of Great Value Foods and hand-delivered a 10-point questionnaire to the firm’s spokesperson but the company did not respond.
Even SC has failed to end ‘contractor raj’
A senior official in the Union Women and Child Development Ministry said the 2004 Supreme Court order should have completely ended these malpractices. “It was welcomed across the country. But because there are such high stakes and financial interests involved in this industry, the order was challenged,” the official said.
In 2011, the apex court ruled that till such time that SHGs are not able to sufficiently cater to the requirements, private contractors can be used. “This opened up the doors for private contractors once again, and their contracts have been repeatedly renewed due to massive manipulation,” the official said.
However, it is not just UP where this practice is prevalent. “Across at least 10 states, contracts are only given to private contractors, and SHGs are completely sidelined. There are big commercial interests involved, and it’s a very deep nexus,” the WCD official said.
Asked if the central government can intervene to stop the malpractice, the official said: “The most we can do is stop the flow of funds, but that would mean that children would stop getting the rations — good or bad — altogether. So our hands are tied.”
The Narendra Modi government at the Centre has sought to address the issue by replacing take-home rations with direct cash transfers — a proposal which has not been accepted yet by WCD minister Maneka Gandhi, who believes that pre-made nutrition packets would be better than replacing the rations altogether.
Girish Kumar Pandey, president of the Anganwadi Association in UP, said the association has written at least 12 letters to a succession of chief ministers, highlighting the issue. “I have asked for a CBI inquiry several times, but to no avail,” he said.
Similarly, the president of the Provincial Child Development Officers Welfare Association (UP), wrote a letter in 2017 to CM Yogi, highlighting serious irregularities and calling the monopolised distribution of panjiri “illegal”.
Only so much the Centre can do
Responding to formal queries by ThePrint, the WCD ministry said: “The ministry or the office of the minister is not supposed to keep a record of entities engaged by the state governments for ICDS as the responsibility of providing supplementary nutrition is completely on the state governments.
The ministry said many misunderstandings appear to have been deliberately created.
“The state governments are free to use different entities for procurement of supplementary nutrition food and different states have been following different methods of procurement, which include manufacturing by state government itself, procurement from public sector companies, private companies, self-help groups and mahila mandals etc,” it said.
“All the systems, as long as they are efficient and transparent, are acceptable under the ICDS programme.”