By Neha Saigal, Saumya Shrivastava & Ashita Munjral
I will not share any data on the coverage of beneficiaries till you are able to show me a letter from higher authorities” was the prompt response of a district social welfare officer to our request for data related to nutrition schemes. This reluctance to share data by a government official at the district level in India is not a new phenomenon, and it was not the first time we got such a response. But, as development practitioners working on implementation of nutrition programmes at the community level, the data we require to design our programmes should be no secret. This is reinforced by Section 4(1) of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
This incident not only urged us to think about the importance of transparency of data related to government schemes and programmes, but more specifically on data related to nutrition and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, which is aimed at improving nutrition intake of children till six years of age, and also pregnant and lactating mothers.
Once we moved beyond this incident, there was a challenge—not much has been written about the transparency of the ICDS data. A rare but thought-provoking mention has been made by Venkatesan Ramani, a retired IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre, in a policy document titled ‘Fixing Child Malnutrition in India: Views from a Public Policy Practitioner’. It mentions that the ICDS Monthly Progress Report that is collated in every state from every Anganwadi Centre (AWC) has relevant information on the coverage of beneficiaries as well as weight of children under five for each AWC. But, unfortunately, it is not easily available. Further, Ramani makes a valid point that lack of access to data for interested stakeholders results in the absence of public accountability and has huge implications on policy implementation.
Before we get on to the issue of public accountability, there is a hurdle, i.e. there isn’t enough information and data available in the public domain for us to understand the nutritional status and effectiveness of nutrition-related schemes of a particular district, block or village. The government, on its part, collects a range of information including the number of beneficiaries, their nutritional status and variances in coverage across villages and social groups like scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. But this local level data is not available in public domain. While one can argue that there are large nutrition surveys like the National Family Health Survey, but unfortunately their design does not capture locally-relevant information and it is not real-time.
Ideally, the ICDS data on target beneficiaries, people reached, services offered and funding for different services should be available at all levels of service delivery. Relevant break-up at each level including state, district, block and gram panchayat should give a holistic picture for decision-makers. Also, communities at village level should have access to the data relevant to their AWC, so they are aware of the beneficiaries, their entitlements as well as the nutritional status of women and children. This will help take forward the dialogue between service providers and the community, generate demand, and improve service delivery.
The ICDS scheme needs to emulate MGNREGA in this regard, in which the principles of transparency and accountability are ingrained through proactive disclosure of information at all levels of scheme delivery, social audits and grievance redressal. This is evident from their management information system—NREGAsoft—that makes information readily available from the national to the beneficiary level, on every aspect of the scheme and is real-time. Information is also made available to public at community level through display boards and wall paintings under MGNREGA.
As a country that is aiming to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030 and has been on a successful path of reducing undernutrition, India is still faced with certain challenges holding us back from achieving our targets. Higher malnutrition prevalence in certain marginalised populations including the STs is one of the biggest challenges.
Transparency of data can be a huge support to governments to identify vulnerable geographies and populations, evaluate schemes, and come up with new innovations. But, most importantly, transparency of this data can support communities to engage with an issue like malnutrition and hold service providers accountable, which will improve service delivery. We also hope that, one day, instead of struggling to access ICDS data, our struggles will focus on analysing that data to find solutions.