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Ensuring children’s right to food

Tuesday 2 May 2006

Survival is tough for most Indian children. About half of them suffer from chronic malnutrition and persistent hunger. More than 60 of 1000 children born die before their first birthday; and nearly three million children under the age of five die annually from preventable diseases.

Despite progress and constitutional guarantees, children frequently suffer deprivation and lack of access to certain basic services. Recently, an all-India convention in Hyderabad on `Children’s Right to Food’ drew attention to the role of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in protecting the rights of children below six - their right to food, nutrition, health, and pre-school education. Although it is the world’s largest early child development programme, the ICDS is tragically starved of funds. The convention called for "universalisation with quality" of the ICDS. Currently, many ICDS anganwadis are in disrepair; and improvements are needed to their working conditions and physical infrastructure, including utensils and water supply. Improving quality calls for training and increasing the numbers of anganwadi workers who presently work under extremely difficult circumstances with low salaries and inadequate community support. Universalisation implies that the benefits of the ICDS should reach every child under six, every adolescent girl, and every pregnant and nursing mother with special emphasis placed on marginalised Dalit and tribal communities. The Supreme Court orders on the ICDS in the `Right to Food’ case in 2001 mandated the universalisation of the Noon Meal Scheme (NMS) and the ICDS. However, these orders have still not been implemented in many States. Of the required 1.7 million anganwadi centres, 650,000 have been `established’ and only 600,000 are functional.

This apart, much waits to be done. There is, for example, an imperative need to provide children below three with supplementary nutrition (apart from the noon meal); organise counselling for young mothers about their children’s nutritional needs; and give poor communities vital information on health interventions. The key to remedying the nutritional deprivation of India’s children is for the various governments to give this issue priority attention. Although it is already one of the core commitments of the Common Minimum Programme, further impetus will come from incorporating the challenge of overcoming nutritional deprivation in the 11th Plan, as was suggested at the Hyderabad convention. Bringing the inter-related issues into the public domain by making ICDS data transparent in accordance with the Right to Information Act, prohibiting ICDS privatisation, and ensuring consensus-building and wide community participation in strengthening the scheme are critical to its success. This will go a long way in ensuring that the basic rights of tens of millions of India’s poorest children are enforced.

See online : The Hindu

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