– Amrita Ghosh
Despite steadily rising child malnutrition levels, the allocation in Budget 2021 for the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s 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 26,057 crore to just Rs 21,005 crore.
Launched in 1975, the Scheme offers food, preschool education, immunisation and primary health check-up services through anganwadi centres.
Highlighting the need to expand nutrition interventions, Shruti Ambast, senior policy analyst at Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability says, “It was anticipated that the government would increase allocations for child health and nutrition after the pandemic that led to closure of schools and anganwadis but unfortunately, funds have rather been reduced. This is worrisome because India, already home to the highest number of wasted children in the world, is threatened with an even higher burden of malnutrition.”
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) 2019-20 – covering 22 states and Union Territories – presents a bleak picture of key child malnutrition outcomes including stunting and share of underweight children. NFHS-5 shows that four key metrics for the nutritional status of children declined in 2019-20 compared to levels in 2015-16 (NFHS-4). In the key indicator of childhood stunting, there has been an increase in 13 of the 22 states/UTs in comparison to NFHS-4, with a noticeable improvement only in Bihar and Assam. Bihar has shown a promising decline of 5.4 percent points in stunting, but still retains the highest percentage of stunted children (42.9 percent) among big states.
Citing numbers, Ambast adds, “In 2015-16, 40 percent of children in the country were stunted and that has now significantly gone up. The coverage of ICDS targeting three critical age groups – children under 6, adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating women – has declined in the last five years with Covid-19 aggravating the situation. This year’s budgetary allocation for the umbrella ICDS scheme – Anganwadi Services, National Nutrition Mission, Scheme for Adolescent Girls and National Creche Scheme – has been reduced by around 18 percent, compared to the previous year.”
In view of the Covid-19 pandemic increasing the vulnerability of children and pregnant and lactating women, Ambast is worried that the situation is likely to aggravate now, as the pandemic raises critical pointers to immunity and nutrition and the budget fails to address the financial shortages affecting nutrition interventions.
Slamming the government’s first post-pandemic budget, Dr. Swati Popat Vats, president of Early Childhood Association (ECA) says, “The figures are disappointing because ideally after the pandemic, we should have invested in our children – whether it is health, nutrition or education. The budget could have been better focused on their needs. We are trying to get in touch with a few NGOs to understand and verify what the budget should have actually looked like and then raise it with the Ministry of Women & Child Development. Unless we have the exact facts and figures, we can’t pressurise the government to fulfil our requirements.”
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