The huge slash has come as a shock to public health experts working on health, nutrition and right to food.
After the increase in the proportion of underweight and stunted children revealed by the national survey, most had expected a substantial increase in allocation for nutrition. However, though the FM talked about merging the supplementary nutrition programme and Poshan Abhiyan and about an intensified strategy to improve nutritional outcomes across 112 aspirational districts, the annexure to the speech indicated a Rs 1,000-crore cut for nutrition.
A closer look at the Budget documents shows that the budget for the umbrella Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the largest early childhood programme for children under 6 years, has been slashed by over Rs 5,000 crore from Rs 26,057 crore to just Rs 21,005 crore. The programme provides food, pre-school education, immunisation, and health check-up through anganwadis at the village level.
“One expected that given that one phase of Poshan Abhiyan is over and it hasn’t achieved its target, as shown by the NFHS-5, there would be an increase in funds. It is disappointing that in the present situation of hunger and malnutrition facing the people in this country, the Union Budget has actually reduced the allocations for crucial food and nutrition schemes such as the ICDS, midday meals and maternity entitlements,” said Dipa Sinha of the Right to Food Campaign.
Some components of the erstwhile umbrella ICDS scheme have been split up and clubbed differently with other schemes making comparison difficult. However, it’s clear most components have faced budget cuts (see graph). The flagship nutrition scheme has been rechristened as Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0.
Allocation for the midday meal programme has increased marginally from Rs 11,000 crore in the Budget estimates for the current year to Rs 11,500 crore, but has fallen by Rs 1,400 crore when compared to the revised estimates for 2020-21 of Rs 12,900 crore.
“It is inexplicable. There is absolutely no cognisance of what NFHS-5 is telling us and what the experience of the pandemic has been. We expected a raise for ICDS as a fundamental intervention to bring down malnutrition,” said Dr Vandana Prasad of the Public Health Resource Network.
“Just by a signature on a letter you add on responsibilities of anganwadi workers, but will not give her a decent remuneration. Anganwadi services have just restarted and this is such a slap in the face of the anganwadi workers who’ve been working so hard even during Covid for such a measly sum,” said Dr Prasad adding that instead of the pandemic creating a new normal in terms of social security, things were going back/getting worse.