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Save the Indian 'anganwadi'

Dec 28, 2011

World’s largest community based Indian child development scheme is crumbling in the western state of Rajasthan with low enrolment of children and mothers, scarce infrastructure and non qualified staff.

Jaipur:  It’s a rented room measuring 8X8 square feet with 11 children sitting on the floor. They are eagerly waiting for their ‘nutritious’ afternoon meal of dalia (porridge made of coarsely ground wheat or corn), being prepared by a young girl in one corner of this already crammed space, which also accommodates sacks of semolina and rice stacked up against one wall. Once the food is served, the children wolf it down immediately. Some don’t seem to like the taste very much but they eat it anyway. After the meal, the class reconvenes. In a sing-song voice Anas Imamuddin, 8, leads the others as they recite their numbers… 1, 2, 3, the counting goes on. 

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This is just another day at the Amagarh anganwadi centre in a locality in Jaipur, the state capital of Rajasthan. Located in Parvat Colony behind Bajri Mandi it caters to this slum that is largely Muslim. The anganwadi worker (AWW) Sonu Prajapat and her anganwadi helper, Asha Devi, are nowhere to be seen. It’s Asha’s daughter, Kamla, 11, who is minding the children today. According to the landlady next door, Pratibha Jat, who has rented out the premises at Rs 750 (US$1=Rs 52) per month, this is pretty much how things function here. 

When asked why Asha isn’t on duty, Kamla informs us that her mother has gone somewhere with the anganwadi registers and offers no other details. Kamla adds that though she studies in a nearby government school cuts class as and when she has to fill in for her mother.

Hands tied

Anganwadi centres were set up under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) to combat child hunger and malnutrition. It is considered to be the world’s largest community-based child development programme. These centres will have to play a key role if the National Food Security Bill is to be effective.

According to government guidelines, an AWW, usually a woman from within the community, is not only trained to provide supplementary nutrition to both children below six years as well as pregnant and nursing women, they are also expected to give antenatal and postnatal care, organise pre-school activities and provide health and nutritional education to families. 

In Rajasthan, only 29% children between 0-6 years pregnant and 46% lactating women benefit from the ICDS, says a recent survey

Sounds like a perfect scheme to fight India’s endemic child malnourishment? One only needs to step into the rural Anganwadi Centre No. 2 at Shivdaspura, 20 kilometres south of Jaipur district headquarters, to bust all myths. Run from a single room, this centre caters to 18 women (nine pregnant and nine lactating), 20 children in the age group of 0-3 years; 15 between 3-6 years, and 40 adolescent girls, according to Uma Sain, the in-charge AWW.

Due to a paucity of space, the daily hot meal is not cooked here – a local self help group prepares it at home and brings it over. Space constraints have also meant that the supplementary nutrition rations to be given to the community have to be ferried from the block office on the day the ‘take home’ ration is distributed. Moreover, Sain maintains one register with details of the enrolled women and children – as opposed to the 10 she is required to fill in – and has nothing to show in terms of the monthly growth chart of the children. Shivdaspura, unfortunately, is not an exception but the rule.

Low enrolment

A recent study, ‘Rajasthan Mein Anganwadi Kendron Ki Sthiti – Ek Adhyayan’, released by the Jaipur-based Resource Institute For Human Rights (RIHR), gives greater clarity on this dismal situation. Sample this: In Rajasthan, only 29% children between 0-6 years benefit from the ICDS. For pregnant and lactating women, the percentage is a little higher but still unsatisfactory - out of 18.1 lakh women enrolled, only 8.3 lakh – or 46% - are reaping any benefits from this intervention. 

"The poor educational qualifications of the AWWs is another problem. Out of the 144 centres we surveyed, only 70 had AWWs who had studied up to Class 8"
- report by Resource Institute For Human Rights

The RIHR study, conducted from July to October 2010, covers 144 villages in eight blocks of Hanumangarh, Sirohi, Churu and Tonk districts. Says RIHR’s Vijay Goyal, “Quite a few problems have emerged. One, there is a huge shortage of Child Development and Protection Officers (CDPOs) in the state. Second, the ones that have been recruited do not inspect anganwadi centres (AWCs) regularly. The poor educational qualifications of the AWWs is another problem. Out of the 144 centres we surveyed, only 70 had AWWs who had studied up to Class 8.” 

The CDPO crisis is quite grave. One CDPO is in-charge of one block, which has 300 to 400 AWCs under it. But the study shows that 87% CDPOs in Nohar block (Hanumangarh), 86% in Deoli-Uniyara (Tonk) and 70% in Sangria-Tibbi (Hanumangarh) had not gone for an inspection in three months (during the study period). Their argument is that a shortage of manpower makes it impossible for them to go to every centre in their block, most of which are far away from the block ICDS office.

Ashok Khandelwal, advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioners in Right to Food case - filed in the Supreme Court (SC) by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in 2001 - also sees the shortage of CDPOs and supervisors as the biggest problem in implementation of the ICDS in Rajasthan. “As of November 18, 2011, out of 304 sanctioned CDPO posts, 125 are vacant - that’s 41% vacancy,” reveals Khandelwal, who has done a study of 10 urban AWCs and is in the process of compiling the data. 

Besides the personnel shortages, there are not enough AWCs to provide adequate coverage. In 2004, the SC, in its interim order in Right to Food case, directed the Government of India to increase the number of AWCs from six lakh to 14 lakh. In Rajasthan, the number should be 70,000, but there are only 52,541 AWCs and 4,358 mini-AWCs. 

Khandelwal also observes that as most AWWs are illiterate, they are unable to maintain proper registers at the centres. While earlier, each AWW was required to maintain at least 14 registers, the number is now down to 10, but even that requirement cannot be met, as we saw at the Shivdaspura AWC. 

Space shortage is another major problem. “Ideally, there should be three rooms – one kitchen, one store and one hall for children to sit and study and eat. There should also be a proper playground for them,” says Khandelwal. But most AWCs operate out of small, one-room units. In fact, as of November 2011 there are 1,098 AWCs being run from the home of the AWW. 

These systemic and personnel inadequacies have seriously undermined the efficacy on this crucial scheme. In Rajasthan, malnutrition among children under the age of 3 years stands at 44%, as per the National Family Health Survey – III (conducted in 2005-2006). In comparison, the national figure is 40.9%. Out of total children weighed at the AWCs across the state in September 2011, 41.6% were malnourished and 0.55% severely malnourished. In Vitamin A supplementation, Rajasthan is second lowest in the country at 16% among children aged 12 to 35 months; while 79.1% children aged 6-35 months suffer from anaemia. 

Clearly, the ICDS has not worked in Rajasthan. Besides the coverage, which is far from universal, the quality of services is poor as well. But all is not lost. Khandelwal suggests linking the ICDS with schools to maximise the impact of the scheme. “This,” he believes, “will solve two problems: One, it will take care of double enrollments (many children in the 3-6 years age group are enrolled both with government schools and the anganwadi centres); second, anganwadis would become centres for preschool education. It can then be made a part in the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act as well.”

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