Vaishnorani Mahila Bachat Gat v. State of Maharashtra & Ors. 2019 SCC online SC 353
Despite a Supreme Court order in 2004 directing the state of Maharashtra to serve hot cooked meals prepared by women self-help groups to children attending Anganwadis, the state continued to outsource the supply of Supplemental Nutritional Products (SNP) to large local and non-local corporations, to the detriment of women self-help groups operating within the state. The government’s tender notices contained onerous conditions that outrightly and systematically disqualified smaller groups from participating in the supply of nutrition to children. The Supreme Court ordered the state to decentralize the process to enable local women to participate in the supplying and preparation of SNP for children under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
The action arose from an appeal of two High Court decisions that were issued in 2016. A local women’s group (Mahila Mandals) and other self-help groups challenged the validity of a tender notice issued by the state of Maharashtra that year. The tender awarded a contract to large corporations with strong political connections for the supply of nutritional food supplements to beneficiaries under the ICDS. The group sought an order from the Court directing the state of Maharashtra to cancel the existing tender notice and issue fresh tenders without the onerous conditions preventing self-help groups from qualifying.
The government of India introduced the SNP to provide fortified food containing essential mineral and vitamins to ensure minimum dietary requirements to beneficiaries in Anganwadi Centers under the ICDS. The SNP had two components to it: 1) Take Home Rations (THR) for pregnant women, lactating mothers and children aged 6 months to 3 years; and 2) Hot Cooked Meals (HCM), for children aged 3 years to 6 years. However, the state of Maharashtra’s policies for supplementary nutrition provision to mothers and children under ICDS had consistently drawn the ire of the Supreme Court due to failure to comply with court orders and misrepresentation to the court. [PUCL v. Union of India & Ors, Writ Petition (Civil) No.196 of 2001 (Also, in the Court’s order of 2004 and 2006); Shagun Mahila Udyogik Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit v. State of Maharashtra & Ors, Civil Appeal No. 7104/2011.]
In 2016, the state of Maharashtra put out a tender notice with conditions that required the use of a highly mechanized and automated process of extrusion and micronutrient fortification to prepare supplementary nutritional food for the intended beneficiaries under the ICDS. These requirements favored large corporations that were better equipped and had the resources to satisfy the conditions of the tender, greatly limiting the ability of the local self-help groups (composed largely of women) to partake in the ICDS programme.
The Supreme Court, taking a cue from what was obtainable in other states outside of Maharashtra, found that the items neither of the SNP components required a sophisticated technique to manufacture. Consequently, the Court ruled that self-help groups were sufficiently equipped and competent to supply the said food items and should be allowed to participate in providing HCM and THR under the ICDS programme. The Court also ruled that terms and conditions of tenders should not be framed in a manner that deprives the women self-help groups from participating in the programme.
The Supreme Court found that the conditions stated in the tender were arbitrarily fixed and in violation of the Court’s previous directives. The Court ruled that the tender conditions were invalid and cancelled the existing contracts awarded to large corporations for supply of the food items under the ICDS at Anganwadi Centers. It further directed the state of Maharashtra to issue fresh tenders under the ICDS within four weeks reflecting the Court’s judgement and to come up with an alternative system to supply rations to children before that time.
The history of state-directed and centralized nutrition provision through the ICDS system has been fraught with controversy, with repeated attempts across many states to circumvent the Supreme Court-directed policy of empowering women in local communities and families to meet the nutrition requirements of their mothers and children. This Supreme Court decision serves as a major victory for local women’s groups all over India, as it provides legitimacy to grassroots struggles of women directly impacted by various forms of injustice and systemic disenfranchisement through government policies.
Kirti Karwa, head of a women self-help group in Amravati district, has described the Court’s decision as “a milestone judgement and [the women in her group] are very happy about it.” According to Karwa, most women self-help groups in the state have had no work for over two years, ever since the government made the group ineligible for contracts. The decision has not only the terms of justice but also restored a major source of livelihood for many women who depend on the programme to provide for their families.
For their contributions, special thanks to ESCR-Net members: the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.