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Provide cooked meals and change child malnutrition parameters: HC

Melghat’s malnourished children will benefit from a Bombay High Court order directing the Maharashtra government to provide cooked midday meals instead of dry take-home rations, and to consider a more realistic measure for gauging malnutrition

The Bombay High Court has directed the Maharashtra government to provide cooked midday meals to children between the ages of six months and three years in the malnutrition-prone area of Melghat in Amravati district, on a daily basis, from June 1. The cooked daily meals are in lieu of the dry rations that used to be occasionally distributed.

The division bench of Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice D Y Chandrachud said it was merely implementing a November 2001 Supreme Court order that directed states to provide cooked meals under the midday meal scheme.

The NGO Khoj had brought a petition before the high court alleging that the government had stopped several health programmes in the district. The dry take-home rations provided were either spoilt or too little to last the expected 15 days.

The remote tribal areas of Melghat in Maharashtra have reported severe child malnutrition since 1993. In just one month this year, April, 33 children in the area have died from malnutrition, according to Khoj. A 2009 study by the NGO MAHAN showed that the area had the highest under-5 mortality rate, especially malnutrition-related deaths, in Maharashtra. Official figures for malnourished children for March 2005 from the district health office say that of the 35,431 children examined at primary health centres, only 11,343 had a normal weight.

This further direction from the court therefore assumes significance. It recommended that the government consider the criterion of weight-for-age to ascertain the grade of malnutrition rather than the current practice of weight-for-height. Children found to be suffering from stipulated forms of malnutrition are admitted to treatment centres to boost their nutrition status.

The court reasoned: “It appears to be obvious that children who are malnourished from their infancy would have stunted height and therefore applying the parameter of weight-for-height would be a disadvantage. Therefore, for definite criterion for ensuring that children who are severely or moderately malnourished get appropriate treatment at the village child treatment centre, or child treatment centre, the basis should be their weight-for-age.”    

Khoj further submitted that there has been no tribal development officer appointed for the area for two years, so even though the tribal welfare department has more than enough funds for welfare projects, it does not use them.

Commenting that the government could not “wriggle out of its responsibilities,” the court ordered that the post be filled by May 31, 2011.

This is not the first time the state government has been pulled up by the courts for ignoring malnutrition in the area. In 1997, the high court, hearing a petition filed by activist Sheela Barse, clearly said it was the duty of the government to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living, and improve public health.

Twelve years later, hearing another PIL filed by Rajendra Burma and others, it stated, on January 15, 2009: “We have no hesitation in observing that the progress in preventing malnutrition and infant deaths is hardly satisfactory. Meetings after meetings in the state administration may be held, but so far results are not shown and as a matter of ground reality, the picture is dismal. We are afraid the state is failing in its duty to provide due protection to the life of poor citizens of the state… Various orders of the court have really not persuaded the authorities concerned to take effective steps.”

Source: DNA, May 24, 2011
  , July 23, 2009