A PROBE by the Karnataka Lokayukta into the supply of food to the Integrated Child Development Services has found that Department of Women and Child Development officials in connivance with the contractor, Christy Friedgram Industry, were siphoning off funds meant for the mid-day meal scheme. The revelation has come at a time when the state is witnessing close to two-three deaths every day due to malnutrition.
The mid-day meal scheme, which costs the state government Rs 600 crore per year, was meant to provide basic nutrition for children below the age of six. However, DWCD officials and CFI delivered sub-standard food after skimming off funds.
According to sources in the Lokayukta, DWCD Director Shyamala Iqbal used to receive Rs 20 lakh per month as bribe, while Deputy Director Usha Patwari and Assistant Director Muniraju used to get Rs 15 lakh per month from CFI for their tacit involvement. “All department officials, right from the taluk level, would collect money every month from the CFI office in Malleswaram, Bengaluru,” the sources say.
“During 2010, we received an anonymous letter detailing the racket, which was duly forwarded to the Lokayukta for investigation,” says Nina Nayak, chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR). She submitted a report to the government following complaints by gram panchayats about the sub-standard food supplied by CFI. “We received letters from parents who complained of their children falling sick after consuming the food,” she says.
The ICDS is the largest programme for promotion of maternal and child health and nutrition not only in India but the whole world. The scheme was launched in 1975 in pursuance of the National Policy for Children. The beneficiaries are children below six years, pregnant and lactating women and women in the age group of 15-44 years. In Karnataka, there are around 54,260 anganwadis, with 33 lakh children entitled to free mid-day meals.
Earlier, the government-owned Karnataka State Agro Corn Products Ltd (KSACPL), which used to manufacture and supply energy foods to anganwadis since 1973, provided mid-day meals. “The KSACPL started making losses in 2001, after the DWCD handed over 50 percent of the energy food supply contract to CFI,” says H Subbaiah, the last managing director of the company. Due to insurmountable losses, the company was shut down last month.
Concerned over reports of fraud and tardy implementation of the ICDS scheme, the Supreme Court had issued a directive in October 2004 prohibiting the use of contractors in the supply of mid-day meals under the scheme.
“This is when CFI hit upon a novel plan to counter it,” says a middle-level DWCD official, who was shunted out later. “CFI entered into a five-year contract in 2007 with a budget of Rs 600 crore for building the capacities of self-help groups.” The company then set up the Mahila Supplementary Nutrition Production and Training Centres (MSNPTCs) in 139 of the 176 taluks.
An employee working in one of the MSNPTCs later wrote to the KSCPCR explaining the way these centres were being run. A copy of the letter, which is with TEHELKA, throws light on the way the DWCD looked the other way when CFI went about doing its business.
According to the letter, “Many of the training centres were not producing the required quantity of energy food. They were procuring ready-to-eat meals directly from Tamil Nadu and dumping it in the training centres. The food was rejected by the locals and was used as fodder for the cattle. Indents given for fulfilling orders were manipulated and illiterate women were hired for the job (according to the agreement, they had to pay a small part of the profit to these women).”
“CFI had set up a parallel channel of giving bribes,” say sources in the Lokayukta. “Right from the taluk level, child development project officers would receive around 1 percent of the amount cleared.”
This year, on 10 March, Lokayukta officials raided Shyamala Iqbal’s house and found 900 grams of gold, diamonds worth Rs 4 lakh, bank deposits worth Rs 65 lakh and a Toyota Innova. They also found documents showing ownership of a commercial complex at Church Street, Bengaluru, a house in HAL 3rd Stage worth Rs 60 lakh and a site in Arkavathy Layout, also in Bengaluru. Shyamala Iqbal did not respond to queries by TEHELKA.
The whole network was managed by CFI employees Kumaraswamy and SS Mani from the state level. “Earlier, the money was given to the officials wherever they were located. After a dispute, it was centralised at CFI’s Malleswaram office,” says the officer. Interestingly, a faction of the pro-Kannada outfit, Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, was roped in for proper distribution of the bribe money. All the officers would come in the first week of every month to collect their share.
Responding to TEHELKA’s queries, CFI general manager (administration) Shivanandan said, “The matter is sub-judice and an inquiry is going on. It is too premature to comment on anything now.”
According to information obtained under RTI, more than 21 lakh children in the state are mildly malnourished and 12 lakh moderately malnourished. More than 70,000 suffer from severe malnutrition.
Even if one goes by the official data, the rate of deaths is quite alarming: almost two-three deaths per day due to child malnutrition. According to the DWCD, between April and August 2011, 2,689 children have died due to acute malnutrition in Raichur district alone.
THAT THE state cannot afford to be complacent on the child nutrition front is obvious from Karnataka’s 11th rank in the India State Hunger Index. According to the findings of the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in Karnataka, the infant mortality rate is 43 deaths per 1,000 births (before the age of one) and 55 deaths per 1,000 births (under the age of five). The NFHS study also says that infant mortality in rural areas is 28 percent higher than in urban areas. The study also reveals that more than half the women in Karnataka (52 percent) have anaemia, including 63 percent of pregnant women with mild anaemia. The recently released state Economic Survey report of 2012 reveals that poverty in Karnataka continues to be the highest among the southern states.
As the CFI battles to clear its name, the government is unlikely to renew its contract. However, it has inked a deal with mining giant Vedanta to fill in CFI’s shoes. On 10 April, Vendanta entered into an MoU with the government to provide mid-day meals to two lakh kids in four districts. Not only is this Rs 12 crore deal in violation of law (as the SC ruling of 2004 mandates no middlemen), it is being seen as part of Vedanta’s PR exercise in the wake of controversies surrounding its mining operations in Odisha and elsewhere.
R Manohar, head of programmes at South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring, says he can’t understand why the state is showing urgency in signing the deal, when there is already a PIL in the Karnataka High Court challenging the involvement of middlemen. “We have seen how CFI functioned. We don’t want another private company playing with the children’s lives,” he says.
Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.