Some months ago, the Maharashtra government announced that it would involve women's self-help groups (SHGs) to make the midday meal scheme work better. In several parts of the country, the scheme has not been effective because of the poor quality of food offered to children in the anganwadis (child care centers).
But this much publicized plan of the Maharashtra government has already run into trouble. Apparently, corruption, which has always prevented effective implementation of such schemes, continues unabated.
"The officials never told us that we should be getting Rs 1.50 (1US$=Rs 44) per child per day for the khichadi (a rice and lentil preparation) we cook for them," says Sunanda Waghmare of Jai Durga Mahila Bachat Gat (Jai Durga SHG in Marathi). "If it had not been for a public hearing by the Human Rights and Law Network, we would never have found out," says Waghmare, who is based in Nagpur.
"There is so much corruption," says Babita Somkuwar of Mayuri Mahila Bachat Gat, also based in Nagpur. "We don't come to know when the tenders are invited for the midday meal scheme despite repeated visits to the education and social welfare departments. We find out only when the contracts have gone to others."
In Vidarbha (eastern Maharashtra), more and more SHGs are expressing discontent and disillusionment with the abysmally low and delayed payments, pressures from different sources and all-pervading corruption.
There are some 100 SHGs currently working for the midday meal scheme in Nagpur city and 975 in Nagpur district. A similar number of SHGs are involved in other districts of Vidarbha as well. For the last four months, the city and district education departments have not cleared payments to SHGs.
According to the government resolution (GR) of March 2005, the rate was increased from 50 paise per child per day to Rs 1.50. In Nagpur district, while the new rates are paid in rural areas, the SHGs working in schools under the Nagpur municipality have been given contracts at the old rates.
"We should be getting Rs 1.50 plus rice for every child who eats our khichadi," says Waghmare. "But this year (2005) in August, when the contracts were signed, we were given contracts at the old rate of 50 paise per child. In the last four months we have not even been paid that much. Now we are getting desperate."
Ratnamala Vaidya, a grassroots worker from Bhandara (a district?), says, "A widow, to whom we gave the contract four months back is left with no money or assets as her bills have not being cleared." Shalini Waghmare from Nagbheed block (Chandrapur district), says that her SHG received payments at the rate of Rs 1.50 for two months. "Then the officials abruptly reduced the payment rate to Re 1 per child. We protested, but things didn't change. We were not given any explanation, either documentary or verbal."
The women complain that the copy of the new GR, pertaining to the raised rates is not available with anyone. "The officials don't give us any information. How can we go on running this scheme at such low rates?" laments Shalini.
When questioned, the officials of the education and social welfare departments in Nagpur have no convincing explanations. Recently, a group of some 50 women from different SHGs met the District Commissioner, S Y Raut, demanding that their pending payments be cleared and they be given new rates. "We came back with nothing but vague assurances," says Leela Bai Dillipawar of Mauli Renuka Mahila Bachat Gat.
Raut says that the new rates have not been implemented because "the GR was received late and the new rates have not been approved by the municipality yet". He, however, could not explain the huge delay of nine months (March to December) in payments, nor could he tell when the revised rates will be implemented.
Says a visibly angry Babita, "When the SHGs are given grants of Rs 15,000, a fixed bribe of Rs 150 per member has to be paid to the officials." Says Sonabai Shomkuwar, "I myself took Rs 5,000 to one 'madam' a few days back!"
Corruption is just one of the problems that the SHGs are facing. Another is the pressure, misinformation and hostility from the previous beneficiaries of the scheme - school and anganwadi employees. "In one of the schools we work for," says Shalini, "The headmaster was very hostile. He was determined not to let the scheme be implemented through us."
"The madams (school teachers) harass us a lot," says Sunanda. "They keep pestering us about the quality of the khichadi. We do the best we can within the budget; we add chickpeas, peas, groundnuts and spices. But they pester us for vegetables too. That is not feasible within the measly amount we are paid. And we have not even been paid yet!" Says Charusheela Sonkusale, who belongs to Sunanda's SHG, "The teachers want us to provide them with snacks. Because we don't do that, we are harassed."
Meera Bai from the Ambitola village in Gadchiroli district says, "Our village education committee decided to give the khichadi contract to a young widow from our SHG (since the profit margins are low, many SHGs give the contract to one single woman while the rest work on other things). But the schoolteachers began to demand sexual favors from her. When she refused, they gave the contract to a woman from another village in total defiance of the education committee."
Mayatai Madke, who cooks khichadi for the children of village Sonare in Bhandara district, says, "The two anganwadi bais (caretakers) harass me a lot. Earlier, when they were cooking, they used to cook khichadi with just rice, some lentils and turmeric powder. Now even when I cook it with groundnuts and vegetables they complain."
Yamini Chaudhari, one of the national coordinators of the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan, who has researched the problems of SHGs in Vidarbha, says, "The misinformation campaigns to discourage SHGs from taking up contracts for the Midday Meal Scheme are rampant all over Vidarbha. The SHGs are given inflated investment figures. They are harassed to provide eggs, bananas or biscuits in addition to the khichadi, which is just impossible. According to the rules, below the poverty line (BPL) women and SHGs are to be given the midday meal contracts, but often political bigwigs float bogus SHGs and bag the contracts. The education committees in the villages also manipulate at their own level. The situation is the same in every village and city in Vidarbha."