The latest audit done by the Madhya Pradesh Accountant General (AG) on the Take Home Ration (THR) scheme has found large-scale irregularities that include sub-standard food and fake beneficiaries.
The THR scheme was approved in 2010 and implemented in 205 districts across the country, covering out-of-school adolescent girls in the age group of 11 to 14 years. Under the scheme, cooked meals are provided to beneficiaries, ensuring that each meal contains 18‐20 grams of protein and 600 calories.
The report notes major discrepancies “in the identification of beneficiaries, production, transportation, distribution, and quality control” of resources in the scheme. The AG has directed the Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh to initiate a probe into these irregularities by an independent agency and fix accountability of the erring officials.
The report said: “Audit, therefore, recommends GoMP [government of Madhya Pradesh] to investigate these issues through an independent agency and fix the responsibility of officials at all levels–CDPOs, DPOs, plant officials, and officials who arranged for transportation, etc., and all other officials who were directly or indirectly involved in these frauds or facilitated the frauds due to their negligence at all levels.”
The Women and Child Development Ministry, says the report, put the total number of beneficiaries under the scheme at 36.08 lakh. This was found to be a shocking inflation of data. The School Education Department had estimated the number of beneficiaries between 2018 and 2021 to be merely 9,000.
The government claimed that trucks were used in six manufacturing units to transport 1,125.64 tonnes of rations costing Rs.6.94 crore, but the audit report found that many of the vehicles listed as trucks for transport of ration were actually scooters, auto-rickshaws, cars, and even tankers. Rations were also shown to have been issued against fake challans.
According to the audit, not only were the units claiming to manufacture rations far beyond their capacity, but there was also a huge discrepancy of Rs.58 crore between the amount of food produced and the consumption of electricity in the preparation of the food. The audit covered six such food manufacturing units in Sagar, Badi, Mandla, Dhar, Rewa, and Shivpuri districts and said that they had claimed to supply 821 tonnes of rations costing Rs.4.95 crore, but lacked the capacity for such large-scale production.
The report brought to light other scams in these food preparation units: The child development project officers in eight districts allegedly received over 97,000 tonnes of rations from these units but dispersed only 86,000 tonnes. The missing rations reportedly cost Rs.62.72 crore, adding to the volume of the free-food scam.
Despite the fact that the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government claims to cater to 49.8 lakh beneficiaries in the State through the THR scheme, the AG’s report pointed out that Madhya Pradesh ranked third from the bottom in terms of maternal mortality rate (MMR) in the years 2017 to 2019 and at the bottom for infant mortality rate (IMR)— 43 in 2020 (released in 2022).
Although the report is yet to be made public, parts of its have found their way to different media outlets, compelling the government to come out with face-saving statements. On September 4, the government attempted to hide behind the excuse of “clerical errors”, while emphasising that “corrective measures have already been taken on the CM’s instruction”. It said in an official statement that “the adolescent girls’ survey was conducted again, and the number of beneficiaries was reduced from 2.6 lakh in 2018-19 to 1.28 lakh in 2020-21. In 2021, only 15,000 remain. In 2022-23, only about 8,600 girls were found in this category.”
The Chouhan government was also involved in the mega Vyapam scam of 2013, in which politicians, officials, and businessmen allegedly gamed the entrance examination and admission system for recruitment to government jobs. With the latest scam, the government came under sharp attack from opposition parties. Trinamool Congress Minister Babul Supriyo, who was earlier in the BJP, demanded a CBI probe. “Why not CBI for this? Madhya Pradesh | Large-scale fraud and scam under Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.”
Sitaram Yechury, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), took a jibe at the BJP’s oft-repeated assertion of a “double-engine government”, saying that the “effect of the double-engine BJP government was clear”. He shared apprehensions about whether central investigative agencies would act against those involved in this scam.
The Congress, the main opposition party in Madhya Pradesh, stepped up its attack against the BJP government. The party’s State spokesperson Abbas Hafeez told Frontline that scams were an everyday affair in Madhya Pradesh in the absence of any accountability. “This is the same government that went hammer and tongs over the fodder scam in Bihar. But while the fodder scam related to food meant for animals, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s regime has gone many steps ahead by minting money earmarked for children’s food and nutrition. What is shocking is that this government shows zero remorse or any obligation to fix accountability,” Abbas Hafeez told this reporter over phone from Bhopal.
Hafeez said that the BJP government survived on advertisements and self-applause, even though there was a wide gap between its promises and the ground reality. “Through the COVID-19 lockdown, Shivraj Singh Chouhan complimented his government for dispersing rations to midday meal beneficiaries at their homes. Now it turns out that the trucks he said were ferrying rations were actually scooters and auto-rickshaws,” Hafeez pointed out.
This is not the first time the midday meal and other free ration schemes in Madhya Pradesh have come under the scanner. In March this year, 57 students had fallen ill due to alleged contamination in their midday meal at a government school in Dindori.
A report published by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 2019 underlined that the Madhya Pradesh government had failed to provide proper midday meals to students in the 2010 to 2015 period, when Chouhan was the Chief Minister. The CAG’s survey of around 300 schools across 10 districts at that time came up with some startling revelations: The midday meal was not served for as many as 7,759 school days in the given period. Besides that, at least 17 schools in Bhopal, Rajgarh, Mandsaur, Sidhi, and Vidisha districts did not serve the meal on the day of inspection.
The menu of the midday meal has also been a bone of contention, with some claiming that the BJP is attempting to force a vegetarian diet plan on beneficiaries. In September 2021, Chouhan announced that eggs would not be distributed in anganwadis during midday meals and his government replaced eggs with milk. The Chief Minister’s statement came only a week after his Cabinet Minister Imarti Devi’s announcement that eggs would be introduced in the mid day meal menu to eradicate malnutrition.
The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS), conducted between 2016 and 2018, showed that about 54 per cent of kids in Madhya Pradesh in the age group of one to four years were anaemic, compared to the 41 per cent national average. Similarly, 32 per cent of adolescents (10-19 years) in the State were moderately or severely thin, compared to the national average of 24 per cent. And as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2018, Madhya Pradesh had a high stunting rate of 42 per cent, that is 3.3 million children under the age five were stunted and 2.7 million children under age five were wasted.
Between December 2018 and March 2020 the Kamal Nath-led Congress was in power in the State and it introduced eggs in the meal menu. The then leader of the opposition Gopal Bhargava claimed that serving eggs “would turn children into cannibals”. The BJP leaders argued at the time that “our culture” prohibits non-vegetarianism. But, the latest audit report numbers seem to indicate that the government in Madhya Pradesh is not distributing vegetarian food either.