How Odisha’s Poorest Districts Are Benefiting From Social Audits

How Odisha’s Poorest Districts Are Benefiting From Social Audits

Mumbai: Social auditing has helped improve the reach and quality of welfare measures meant for the poor in six of Odisha’s most backward districts, a study has concluded. A social audit enables the evaluation of policy schemes through discussions between beneficiaries, government bodies and the implementers.

In six of the poorest and least developed districts of Odhisha--Koraput, Balangir, Nuapada, Nabarangpur, Malkangiri and Kalahandi--a social audit of four welfare schemes was conducted between January and March 2018. This was followed by a second audit between December 2018 and February 2019.

Significant changes were noticed in the reach and delivery of welfare schemes between the two social audits that covered anganwadi centres of 240 gram panchayats of 24 blocks in these districts.

There was a 61% increase in the number of beneficiaries who received rations under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, the world’s largest integrated early childhood programme to reduce child mortality, as per the study. It has also caused a 20-percentage-point drop in the proportion of pregnant women who did not receive their benefits under MAMATA, a maternity benefits scheme.

The study conducted by the Society for Promoting Rural Education and Development (SPREAD), a non-governmental organisation, covered four schemes--apart from ICDS and MAMATA, it included the Mid-Day Meal scheme, which provides a free school lunch for an estimated 120 million children across 1.2 million schools in India, and the Targeted Public Distribution System, which is supposed to benefit 65.2 million families below the official poverty line with subsidised food grain, as IndiaSpend reported in January 2016.

The four schemes, under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), aim to provide a range of entitlements for households, pregnant women, lactating mothers as well as children under 14. India’s children currently make up 40% of the country’s population. In the 2019-20 budget, the central government allocated Rs 90,594 crore ($12.5 billion) for children. This is a 0.01-percentage-point increase from last year at 3.25% of the overall budget, IndiaSpend reported in February 2019.

The audit was designed and implemented by SPREAD and supported by Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives.

At the end of the process, the findings were shared at the palli sabha, regular meetings held between elected village leaders. On the final day of social auditing, findings were presented at the gram sabha (village council), chaired by the sarpanch in the presence of the community and the service providers. At the sabha, decisions are also taken on how to improve services.

“Using the gram sabha, social auditing creates a forum for those affected to voice their grievances and contribute to policy decisions,” said K Anuradha, former director, social audit for the government of Assam, who also audited the Odisha programme. “Beneficiaries become more aware of their entitlements, and it brings credibility to the programmes.”

There are minimum requirements for the auditing process to be successful, she added. “There must be free access to relevant information at appropriate levels--village, sub-state, state, and nation,” she said. “Citizens must participate in the decision-making process in an accessible and safe forum, to reach agreement on future actions with a time frame decided.”

Inclusion is also a challenge in the social auditing process. Children, lactating mothers, and poor and vulnerable groups must be adequately represented in the gram sabha, Anuradha pointed out. “The major challenge going forward is to prevent vested interest groups influencing all aspects of social audits, from recruitment to action,” she said.

Meal schemes’ coverage improves

ICDS, the world’s largest integrated early childhood programme to reduce child mortality, was overhauled in the early 2000s when it was discovered that only 6% of girls aged 0-2 years and 14% aged 3-5 years received supplementary nutrition, despite 90% coverage of villages, as IndiaSpend reported in March 2019. The scheme had promised a morning snack, a hot cooked meal, take home rations and health checks for children below 6.

The first social audit in 2018 showed that 24% of beneficiaries received their full ration of one packet of chhatua (a mix of roasted wheat, Bengal gram, groundnuts and sugar) and 12 eggs. This has risen to 39% in the second audit, a growth of 15 percentage points. This was highest in Balangir and Malkangiri districts, with 63% and 61% receiving their full ration respectively. Participants of the audit now take home an average of eight eggs per month, compared to the previous four.

A total 85% of beneficiaries reported the hot meal being prepared at the centre on all working days, a five-percentage-point improvement over the last social audit. Around half the preschool children interviewed (54%) reported getting a hot meal at an anganwadi, and 6% said they never got one.

The morning snack remains a “major cause of concern” according to the report, with 29% reporting that they never received it. This could be because of the distance between the beneficiary household and the anganwadi centres (rural childcare centres), irregular supervision, and lack of awareness of entitlement among beneficiaries, as per the report. Another reason could be social divisions such as caste, IndiaSpend had reported in March 2019.

Infrastructure gets better

Infrastructure was an area of substantial improvement within the ICDS programme, with an average 15% increase in buildings and boundary walls for anganwadi centres, the report said.

However, this progress was not uniform across regions: Nuapada showed a 1-percentage-point increase in the number of anganwadi centres without a building. Over a quarter of centres still remain without their own building, 37% do not have a storage space, 45% have no kitchen space and 78% do not have functioning toilets for children.

The table below highlights a decrease in the number of anganwadi centres not equipped with a weighing machine for children. On average, 85% of centres have a functional weighing machine for children and 64% for adults. The machine is an important tool in assessing the health benefits of the welfare measures.

Despite this, half the children (50%) and less than half the mothers (47%) surveyed were having their weight monitored once a month, with a growth chart displayed in 60% of the anganwadi centres. This is an important potential benefit of ICDS which is not sufficiently monitored, as a 2015 study said. Girls who received supplementary nutrition grew taller than their peers, it had pointed out.

“Continuous efforts to revisit the gram sabha brings trust and a platform for people to voice their grievances, increasing the likelihood for plans to improve equipment to be followed through,” said Anuradha.

Mid-day meals had no shortfall

The Mid-Day Meal scheme is the world’s largest school meal programme and reaches, as we said, an estimated 120 million children across 1.2 million schools in India. It is a centrally sponsored scheme formulated in 1995 to improve enrollment, and increase attendance and retention by providing free food grains to students in government primary schools. For the first time the number of children out of school in India has fallen below 3%, bringing the total school enrollment to a record 97.2%, IndiaSpend reported in January 2019.

Mothers reported a marked increase in their child’s food consumption following the first social audit. By the second round, 16% said they have better knowledge of the meal schemes because of the social auditing process. Upto 92% schoolchildren were of the view that the scheme had not suffered any shortfall.

The programme had made worldwide news when 23 school children in Bihar’s Chhapra district died after eating meals cooked and served in their school, IndiaSpend reported in April 2012.

But 27% schools still do not have clean water drinking facilities within or near their campus, the study said. This is just a 6-percentage-point improvement on the levels reported by IndiaSpend in 2011.

At least 15% schools across the six districts do not have separate kitchen sheds, 41% lack separate store rooms, and 35% do not have enough food containers, as per the study. Balangir tops the list of schools without kitchens (21%), followed by Kalahandi (19%), Koraput (16%), Nabarangpur (14%), Nuapada (11%) and Malkangiri (6%).

Improved awareness of maternity scheme

The MAMATA scheme, launched by the government of Odisha in 2011, is a conditional cash transfer of Rs 5,000 to pregnant or lactating women over the age of 19. This partial wage compensation now reaches 3.1 million beneficiaries. It is provided in the form of four instalments, spread over a period of 12 months (from six months of pregnancy till the infant is nine months old).

From the 7,165 eligible women identified for MAMATA, 2,652 (37%) did not receive a single installment. In Malkangiri, this was 44%. But this is still an improvement over the first social audit figures. Compared to 58% in the first audit, now 38% reported a delay in disbursal of installments. Half were unaware of the reason for the delay.

The second round of audits also found an increase in the number of mothers breastfeeding since the first audit--from 52.5% to 86.6%. Also, 33% of beneficiaries claimed to have better knowledge of the programme because of social auditing.

“Before the gram sabha they were not getting the money from the MAMATA scheme on time, they were facing a lot of problems,” said a male village leader of mixed caste in Balangir, interviewed in the previous audit. “But after the gram sabha on January 20, (2018), they are getting their money immediately without any delay.”

Fewer dissatisfied with grain distribution

The Targeted Public Distribution System uses a criteria to subsidise the distribution of food grains to eligible households, who are able to register for a ration card. The Centre transports the grains to central depots in each state and thereafter, state governments deliver the allocated food grains to ration shops.

During the second round of social audit, 99% of households reported being satisfied with the quality of distributed food grains, up from 98% in the first audit. Similarly, 94% were satisfied with the weight of the food grain, up from 89% in the first round.

The report highlighted that exclusion within households remains an issue (households having a ration card which does not list all members of the household). Nearly 36,000 people were left out of TPDS in these households, the audit found, which amounts to an intra-household exclusion of 21.69%.

(Habershon, a graduate from the University of Manchester, is an intern with IndiaSpend. Salve is a research manager.)

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