The Orissa High Court has expressed serious concerns in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that highlighted the present condition of children in Jajpur, still falling under the categories of severely and acutely malnourished (SAM) and moderately acutely malnourished (MAM) despite the prevalence of many schemes both at National and State level. Further made it ‘abundantly clear’ that the people can not be excluded from the welfare schemes on any ground including the lack of an Aadhaar Card or a mobile phone.

The bench in terms of welfare schemes, also highlighted that if there are systems put in place, then they should incentivise ‘inclusion’ rather than ‘exclusion’ to ensure coverage.

“…while discussing issues relating to health of persons and of children in particular, presenting statistics in terms of percentages would hide more than they reveal about the ground situation. Perhaps human lives and human health should, in the present context, not be discussed in terms of percentages but by acknowledging that they are actual persons. To have in Odisha in 2023 nearly 30,000 SAM and 86,000 MAM children is a cause for alarm not just for the State of Odisha but for the Government of India as well. If one were to understand the national percentages of 2.26% SAM and 4.75% MAM on a 1.8 billion population, and translate them into actual numbers, the severity of problem would become evident”, a division bench of Chief Justice Dr. S. Muralidhar and Justice Satapathy observed in the matter.

Noting an explanation by the Secretary, Women and Child Development (WCD) on schemes which were intended to improve the health of children and deal with the problem of malnourishment, the bench further observed, “…What a petition like this, and report of the CDMO and the Collector, Jajpur tells us is that there are obvious gaps in the implementation of these various schemes and that the benefit of the schemes may not be reaching the intended beneficiaries”.

Advocate Afraaz Suhail appeared for the petitioner, and Deputy Solicitor General P.K. Parhi appeared for the respondent.

In the present matter, pursuant to an order passed by the Court, affidavits were filed by the Commissioner-cum-Secretary to Government, Women and Child Development (WCD) Department, Odisha (May 13, 2023), the Chief District Medical and Public Health Officer (CDM & PHO), Jajpur (May 15, 2023) and the Deputy Secretary, Ministry of WCD, Government of India (May 18, 2023).

In the petition, instances of 11 children were cited to substantiate on the matter and to highlight the present condition of children in the district.

The Collector, Jajpur in the affidavit submitted to the Court, gave a break up which confirmed that 4 of the 11 children were severely and acutely malnourished (SAM), while three children were moderately acutely malnourished (MAM).

Further that one girl, Subhalaxmi Tarai, who was suffering from cerebral palsy and secondary malnutrition had died. The remaining children were stated to be ‘normal’ children i.e. not falling within the above categories of SAM or MAM.

The bench took note of the fact that those children were all in the age group of 0 to 6 years, and belonged to tribal community and the poorest sections of the society.

However, the Collector, explained how families belonging to the Schedules Tribes (ST) are not willing to have their children treated at the public health facilities.

While expressing concerns over the cited statistics by the authorities, the bench observed, “One fact that emerged in course of today’s deliberations was that even in a district like Jajpur in Odisha the coverage of the population by public distribution system (PDS) under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is not ‘universal’. Today’s discussion threw up expressions like ‘allocation’ and ‘vacancies’ pointing to the fact that there might be sections of our society, and this includes the most vulnerable, who may not be covered under the PDS system. Since the distribution of nutritional supplements and rations happens only through the PDS, there is every likelihood that a child or an expectant mother in a family in need of such supplements and rations may not receive them… What compounds this issue further is that all the statistics are projected on the basis of 2011 census and not on the actual figures on the ground as of 2023… Therefore, the number of persons ‘excluded’ from the coverage of all the schemes could be much larger than what is projected in Page 6 of 11 these affidavits”.

After considering the relevant data of Danagadi and Sukinda Blocks in Jajpur district in Odisha,, the bench also brought in a possibility of other districts and blocks in the State where the situation could be equally bad or even worse.

“…Unless we have healthy women and healthy adults in general, it is unlikely that the children in such families would be healthy. This again points to the larger problem of lack of ‘universal’ coverage under the PDS”, the order further read.

Resultantly, the Court extended the scope of the present petition to include the Keonjhar district as well.

"The Court is of the considered view that given the unfortunate happenings in the Danagadi Block in Jajpur district spoken of in the petition, this needs to be made abundantly clear at both the State level as well as the National level since this welfare schemes are meant to cater to the needs of the most vulnerable and poor sections of our society who cannot be excluded on any ground including the lack of an Aadhaar Card or a mobile phone", the bench also held.

The bench further directed the authorities at both levels to not view such PILs as ‘adversarial’ but as an opportunity to work together to find workable solutions.

The bench, therefore, urged the Secretaries in the Departments of SME, WCD, Health and Family Welfare, Tribal Welfare, and Food and Civil Supplies to hold a review meeting within one month where the Secretaries of the Odisha State Commission for Women, Odisha Food Commission and the Odisha Child Rights Commission would also participate.

Further, directed the Chief Secretary, Government of Odisha to convene the said meeting in the next one month, to chalk out an action plan to achieve the target of complete absence of SAM children in Odisha and a reduction by more than half of MAM children in Odisha by the end of 2023.

Cause Title: Mantu Das v. Union of India and Ors. W.P.(C) No. 12966 of 2023

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