The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) data on maternal and child health and nutrition outcomes in Maharashtra provides sobering food for thought. It does not provide the cheer that the 2012 UNICEF Comprehensive Survey on Nutrition in Maharashtra (CNSM 2012) brought, with the showing of a stunning reduction in under-2 child stunting rates (between 2006 and 2012) from 39% to 23%, and a corresponding reduction in under-2 child underweight rates from 30% to 22%. The NFHS-4 figures, which cover under-5 children, show a reduction in stunting from 46% to 34% and in underweight from 37% to just 36% over a ten-year period between 2005 and 2015. More important, the NFHS-4 data reveals that high malnutrition rates are not a feature only in predominantly tribal districts; districts like Parbhani and Yavatmal (with tribal population of 2.2% and 18.5%, respectively) show stunting rates over 45%. As many as 13 districts in the state show underweight percentages in excess of 40%. What is disquieting is the fact that districts in Vidarbha, like Buldhana and Washim (apart from Yavatmal), and in Marathwada, like Jalna and Osmanabad (apart from Parbhani), show a high percentage of underweight children. Considering that the campaign to reduce child malnutrition in Maharashtra had its beginnings in Marathwada in 2002, the regression in performance of districts in this region indicates that the gains in child nutrition in the first ten years of this century seem to have been lost in the past few years.
Another noticeable feature of the NFHS-4 data is the variance of its figures from the ICDS monthly progress reports (MPRs) of the corresponding period. Since the NFHS-4 survey was carried out in mid-2015, a comparison of district-wise under-5 children underweight percentages as shown in the June 2015 ICDS MPR was made with the district-wise figures of the NFHS-4 data. The analysis shows that as many as 20 districts showed ICDS MPR underweight percentages which were more than 25 percentage points below the corresponding NFHS-4 percentages. Unless one wishes to contest the accuracy of the results of the NFHS-4 sample survey, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the ICDS MPR figures are understated. My personal experience, as a former director general of Maharashtra’s Rajmata Jijau Mother Child Health and Nutrition Mission, is that there is generally a tendency, on the part of the ICDS machinery (not just in Maharashtra, but in most states) to under-report underweight numbers, both because of lack of emphasis on accurate growth monitoring, as also to avoid criticism.
The analysis becomes even more relevant in the context of the recent furore over child deaths in Palghar district (newly carved in 2014 out of the existing Thane district and comprising the predominantly tribal-populated talukas), attributed to the high child malnutrition rates in this tribal region. Why has this state of affairs come about in a state which, barely a few years ago, was in the forefront of efforts to reduce child malnutrition and whose achievements gained national and international recognition?
Over the last five years, during the second phase of the Mission, there was a move away from data monitoring at a disaggregated level ranging from the district down to the Anganwadi. The Mission focused on behavioural change processes at community and family levels and on pilot initiatives to promote nutrition-sensitive projects in association with corporates/non-profits. While these yielded results at the micro-level, there was no specific focus on scaling up these initiatives or ensuring their sustainability. More important, the emphasis on strengthening health and nutrition systems at the cutting edge levels, a significant feature of the operations of the first phase of the Mission, was not stressed in the second phase. Neither was there systematic follow up of the under-5 child nutrition status at the ICDS project level, a measure which is crucial to monitor the high malnutrition burden areas. With little pressure on them to monitor or ensure achievement of key nutrition outcomes, the ICDS machinery at the Zilla Parishad level and below paid little attention to outcomes.
There was also a diminution in the role of the Mission in terms of coordinating the nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive activities of different government departments. Departments continued to function in their respective silos; even fundamental activities like the medical facility based treatment of severe acute malnutrition and the community management of acute malnutrition suffered setbacks on account of budgetary cuts and what can only be termed as the absence of a clear policy focus. The lack of coordination in the nutrition-sensitive/specific programmes of different departments is manifest even to date in the manner of implementation of the Abdul Kalam Amrut Aahar Yojana, a maternal nutrition scheme aimed at pregnant and nursing mothers.
The ICDS machinery is yet to wholeheartedly take responsibility for making this programme a success; delayed fund transfers to the village level and failure to put in place effective monitoring systems continue to bedevil the programme even a full year after its commencement. Few systematic reviews of the child malnutrition position have been undertaken at the apex levels of the political and administrative hierarchies in recent years.
The need for a mission approach to tackling child malnutrition in Maharashtra arose in the early 2000s out of the perceived inability of the ICDS machinery to make a significant impact on reducing child malnutrition despite almost three decades of its existence: its overwhelming focus on supplementary nutrition, the lack of attention to under-3 children and the failure to adopt a data based implementation strategy. Frequent transfers of officers at the helm of affairs of the ICDS and the department of women & child development (DWCD) and absence of accountability for outcomes have bred a “business as usual” approach. The situation on the ground has deteriorated to the extent that over 70% of posts of child development project officers, the lynchpin of the ICDS programme, lie vacant today, with the DWCD apparently unable to draw up a recruitment policy for this crucial post. The creation of the Mission was expected to engender a sense of purpose in the ICDS, improve its coordination of activities with other departments and enforce accountability for measurable outcomes. This approach, largely successful in the first phase of the Mission till 2010, has been diluted greatly in the second phase.
As matters stand, the government of the day, despite having in hand a clear proposal on the modalities for launching the third phase of the Mission, has not been able to take a decision for over eighteen months. Current thinking seems to be in favour of subsuming the operations of the Mission within the ICDS Commissionerate, a move that will make the Mission a toothless entity and, in effect, ensure a regression to the status quo prevailing prior to 2005.
Ultimately, any structure to tackle child malnutrition can only be effective if it is staffed with personnel with the passion and commitment to make a difference. The indifferent experience of a number of other states that launched Nutrition Missions based on the Maharashtra model is a clear indication that standard bureaucratic interventions will not work. Maharashtra is free to experiment with any governance structure for addressing the issue of child malnutrition. There are, however, certain fundamental steps that are a sine qua non for making a significant dent on the problem:
Accurate, real-time data has to be the basis for a strategic approach. Both the health department and the ICDS need to use technology to gather real-time data on maternal and child health and nutrition to strengthen systems to tackle underlying causes. Maharashtra made a beginning in 2011 2012 using the Janani and Jatak software systems for individual mother and child tracking to monitor maternal and child health and nutrition outcomes with a view to build service delivery capabilities of the health and ICDS systems. Unfortunately, both departments have not made use of these softwares, specifically customized for Maharashtra, to aid them in efficient service delivery.
A far greater sense of accountability needs to be enforced in the ICDS and public health systems, as well as in other departments with a role to play in reduction of child malnutrition and mortality, from the Secretariat to the village level. A clear political message needs to go out that the death of even one child or the continued prevalence of stunting, underweight and wasting in under-5 children will not be tolerated.
Whether as a Mission or as a high-level council under the chief minister, there needs to be an organisational structure that coordinates the activities of government departments/agencies, non-profits and civil society organisations. This body would plan strategies for high incidence areas, garner financial and other resources for tackling malnutrition, help develop innovative, sustainable programmes and set time-bound, measurable goals.
The author is partner, Access Advisory. Views are personal