The government’s plan to replace Take-Home Ration (THR) under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme with cash for children under 3 and pregnancy and lactating mothers is definitely an idea worth trying.
THR has often been reported, both by the government and by independent organisations, to have large-scale operational leakages, bad quality of food materials, and in many cases unpalatable distribution of food materials.
Since the announcement of intention to replace THR with cash on a pilot basis, criticisms have been pouring in. This idea cannot be seen with the binary lens of either cash or food. Rather, it should consider pragmatism, combining food delivery in places where social infrastructure is good and cash transfers where it is not.
The blatant dismissal of cash transfers for accelerated reduction in maternal and child malnutrition ignores both rich evidence from within the country and outside, and the failure of the THR implementation in many states of India, especially the poor ones such as Jharkhand and Rajasthan.
The recent experience of cash transfers from Bihar jolts the common argument that cash could be diverted for purposes other than food. This is often argued on the premise that women don’t have decision-making powers and that men will spend the money on liquor. The lessons from Bihar reveal that a staggering 91% of the cash transferred into the bank accounts of pregnant and lactating women was used for buying food, predominantly milk and vegetables. The good news is this could be realised in a state which ranks the worst in multidimensional poverty index and has the maximum incidence of domestic violence in India, without any major investments in social norms change. The overall impact of cash transfers in the state has been assessed to 27% fewer children wasted, 14% less children underweight, 19% less mothers underweight. Similar experiences have been observed in Pakistan, Mozambique and Ethiopia as well.
Cash transfers, coupled with behaviour change drive, could potentially be more effective in fast-paced reduction in mother and child malnutrition.
Scientifically conducted studies from our neighbour, Bangladesh, which implemented a large behaviour change programme targeting malnutrition, reveal dramatic and positive shifts in nutrition indicators such as exclusive breastfeeding, low birth weight and wasting.
For the government, implementing THR—which has failed miserably in reducing the burden of malnutrition for the last 50 years—and experimenting with cash transfers in a few districts should not be a problem. In the worst case scenario, if the experiment fails, there is always the option to go back to THR.
By Raghwesh Ranjan, Director, Social and Economic Empowerment, IPE Global