Dr Manohar Agnani is one of the few bureaucrats that one is glad to have met.
I've encountered him twice, when our professional paths crossed, in Madhya Pradesh; each time, he showed me how one committed district collector can make the difference between a bad state of affairs and a changing state of affairs.
The first time I met him was in connection with the terrible sex ratio in Morena district, from where he was transferred. However, he'd stumbled upon that problem while trying to tackle another problem - that of malnutrition and inefficient anganwadi centres.
One of the key differences between him and other officials is that he looks upon a problem as a problem - as something that needs fixing, not something to get defensive about. And he knows enough not to be frightened by statistics. For instance, if the data shows that 49.21% of Madhya Pradesh's children are malnourished and this figure is higher than in previous decades, it doesn't necessarily mean that there are more children eating lesser. It could also mean (and probably does) that the most recent data is the most accurate, most comprehensive data ever collected. It is the first time that each block in each district of the state has been covered, through the Bal Sanjivani Abhiyan.
He explained, "Recently, the 8th round of the Bal Sanjivani campaign survey was completed and the figures shot up. But before this, malnutrition data was being collected through the ICDS centres (anganwadis). However, only 60-65% of the children in the age group of 0-5 years are enrolled in ICDS. The remaining percentage is usually the worst affected - the poor, the marginalised, the geographically remote. Any calculation based entirely on ICDS alone was bound to be false, because the incidence of malnutrition is highest in areas that can't be reached through anganwadis. Now, our access to these children has gone up from 60% to 90%. The figures have shot up but there's more objectivity now."
Being a trained professional himself, Dr Agnani is also aware of how the statistical parameters work. For instance, "Internationally (in the West, in particular) the norm is to monitor the child's height against his/her age. Or, to check the weight against the height. But the problem in India was this - a malnourished child will be both shorter and lighter for his age. If you look at height and weight as a parameter of growth, you're bound to be misled. So, we measure weight against age, instead."
The district's medical officials are working with NGOs, with UNICEF, and with anganwadi workers, to operate nutritional rehabilitation centres. In seven months, the district has built up a capacity for 76 beds, and is implementing a scheme that allows the mother to stay in hospital/special ward/rehab centre, and feeding her as well. The centres have, in fact, gone beyond the bare bones of the scheme. Local organisations have been requested to help with space and materials in any way they can - clean bedsheets, old toys, clothes for the children.... anything that could make the place liveable for the fortnight during which the mother and child stay there.
"You have to understand - the government is making an effort. Our target was to reduce severe malnourishment, to bring it down to 1% by the year 2007. That has been achieved (it is 0.91% in MP)."
One of the important follow-up steps is to educate the family of the affected child - to tell them what to feed the child, from amongst foods that are available locally. This is especially significant because along with the 'mainstreaming' of tribal culture, a lot of traditional food-knowledge has been lost; in fact, a lot of food diversity has been destroyed, with most farmers growing only wheat or rice by way of grain and not knowing what to do with the wealth of green, leafy plants that grow easily in their environment.
The district has sent on a list of 70 recipes to the capital. These are recipes that could easily be implemented at anganwadi centres (a move that requires government sanction) at little extra cost, and would do wonders for nutritional diversity.
However, food availability is linked to work availability and public distribution of rations. Any district collector who wants to beat hunger must bring in the NREGA, implement the minimum wage, and ensure that ICDS and PDS work effectively.
Therefore, the district administration tackles complaints related to the public distribution system on a war footing. (It is important to mention here that his predecessor, M. Geetha, was equally active in trying to bust PDS-smuggling rackets; during her tenure, there were several raids by the police and lakhs of tonnes of PDS grain was caught, while being diverted elsewhere) Dr Agnani has issued orders to the lead (the person/agency who must take rations from the government godown and send it on to the link/society, who in turn will distribute it from ration shops) - the lead must 'lift' the rations by the 15th of each month and certify that it has been sent on. By the 18th, the administration sends out teams for surprise checks, to see if this has been done. On the 20th of the month, they demand that distribution begins. Officers are made personally responsible and must be present at ration shops during distribution, which must be finished by the 22nd.
No change of schedule is permitted.
This may not be a leak-proof method but it minimizes the window of opportunity for smugglers and black-marketeers. Also, as word spread, the poor know, on which dates they might expect their rations. The shopkeeper can no longer tell them - "The grain hasn't arrived, come later." or "You came too late; the grain is finished."
Another problem is kerosene. Since kerosene (PDS kerosene, in particular) is much cheaper than petrol, it is diverted towards running trucks and cars, instead of the stoves of the poor.
The Shivpuri administration alone caught at least 40 vehicles in a single month. Also, there is a false assumption that vehicle-owners don't use kerosene because it harms the engine. The truth is, the damage is not extensive and the affected part is very easily replaced, while the savings on fuel are much greater.
However, there's a whole mafia involved. One district cannot do much unless all other districts come down hard at the same time. The state, all the states, have to tackle all of these - fuel-adulteration, rations, minimum wage, malnutrition rehabilitation, schools and anganwadis - simultaneously.
Dr Agnani recognizes this fact, when he says - "Those who fail on one front, will fail on all others."