The Karnataka Assembly elections and the following drama in government formation gave us wall-to-wall coverage, schooled us on Lingayats, Veerashaivas, regional disparities between Bombay Karnataka, Mysore Karnataka and Hyderabad Karnataka. Heck, it even exposed how the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress IT cells were deep-diving into our social media accounts and brain-washing us for elections.
But what this electoral hyper-coverage did not do is put the spotlight on how Karnataka is tackling the poverty and deprivation in Hyderabad Karnataka region and why there is still hope! One such programme is the Karnataka multi-sectoral nutrition pilot project, running in two of the most backward blocks in Karnataka ie Chincholi in Gulbarga district and Devadurga in Raichur district. So here is our contribution to undo that black-out.
On the back of the spate of child malnutrition deaths in Raichur in 2011, while the then state Women and Child Development Minister, CC Patil, denied the reports, the then government of Karnataka set up the Karnataka Nutrition Mission. One of the first state nutrition missions in the entire country! And they got Veena S Rao, a career bureaucrat, nutrition champion (both in practice and academia), to shape the mission and its special programmes as its adviser. She had just retired from the Indian Administrative Services, where amongst other posts held, she had also been the Joint Secretary of the nodal ministry, Ministry of Women and Child Development, at the central government, leading the nutrition portfolio for the country. A detailed interview with Ms Rao will be published as the next episode of #ChildhoodMatters series.
Fast forward to 2015, the Karnataka Multi-sectoral Nutrition Pilot Project (KMNPP) took shape, with the funding of the Japan Social Development Fund (managed by the World Bank), under the aegis of Karnataka Nutrition Mission. Karnataka Health Promotion Trust, a leading non-profit in the health and social development space, is the implementing partner in the two blocks. So why does this initiative deserve public attention?
Some numbers first as per the project report:
*The stunting figures in the KMNPP haven’t changed much because it is a sticky indicator.
Considering the Karnataka intervention is with one of the most marginalized communities, i.e. the Lambanis, these are very good numbers in 18 months compared to the pan-India average. There has been an under-weight reduction by seven per cent from NFHS III (National Family Health Survey 2004-5) to NFHS IV (2015-16) and a stunting reduction of 10 per cent in 11 years pan India.
KMNPP’s approach has been different from routine nutrition interventions in India, especially the flagship programme i.e. the Integrated Child Development Scheme. How?
Back to the under-weight, wasting, stunting reduction numbers, KMNPP’s leads are circumspect, since the above are self-reported data. When the author visited the programme in end-May 2018, the project team had opened the intervention for an independent audit by National Institute of Nutrition. This step is more radical than we imagine because we are living in times where most governments and non-governments are cooking the books to write fictional accounts of success. Data manipulation is a go-to method for this. Even global high profile interventions helmed by leading economists like Jeffrey Sachs have been accused of being defensive about data. Journalist Nina Munk does a brilliant take-down of Jeffrey Sachs in her book The Idealist. Data manipulation in his flagship Millennium Villages Project is one of the issues Ms Munk discusses too. KMNPP opening its project data for external verification needs to be appreciated in this context too.
Other than addressing the maternal-child under-nutrition, one of the biggest impacts of this programme is that it set a benchmark for what a well-resourced public partnership programme can look like.
So this state of the art intervention in the back and beyond of Karnataka (if not India), why doesn’t it get written about as often? Rishikesh Desai, special correspondent with The Hindu explains, “Currently Indian media is obsessed with politics, and that too electoral politics. Development journalism, people’s journalism, has long been abandoned.” But he doesn’t blame the Indian media only for the lack of voice amongst the Lambanis. Considering they have such an inspiring nutrition programme, why aren’t they demanding more from the state, more in terms of health-care, education, road transport so on and so forth? What about citizen engagement of the Lambanis? Mr Desai adds, “It is not just the marginalization of the Lambanis (goat-herding is their major occupation, akin to Bakkarwals in Kashmir), which causes their reticence but it is the overall backwardness of Hyderabad Karnataka region, the continuing feudalism in land ownership and production relations, that makes the region reticent and backward. Add to that, the state has over 25 per cent vacancy in Hyderabad Karnataka in sanctioned positions, which, shrinks the ability of the state to deliver welfare. Vacancy is an Achilles heel of Karnataka administration. Electoral politics has also fostered vote-bank constituency and pay-back rather than active citizenship.” So what we are witnessing is something akin to Michael Walton’s clientelism theory.
So while the project is an evidence of the potential of the public sector partnerships, can it be a template for other public services like health and education to follow? Will it raise the ambitions of the citizens of Gulbarga, Raichur and Hyderabad Karnataka region from their state? One sure hopes so. We will watch. Hope the media does too.
Photo credit: Biplab
Acknowledgements: The author would like to acknowledge the support of Karnataka Nutrition Mission for facilitating open access to the project sites and the support of ICFJ Washington DC in bringing this article.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.