By Namratha Bhat
Vivek, a boy not more than 4, living in a slum in the Koramangala district of Bangalore never forgets to greet me with a smile when I visit the anganwadi he is put in. Despite not meeting his parents often, since both are in construction labour, Vivek does not complain. His anganwadi teacher is his guardian and his friends have become his solace. All those times he isn’t busy colouring between the lines, he is playing around with his friends.
The anganwadi, not more than ten feet long and four feet wide, accommodates nearly 25 children between the age group 0-6 years. We, the volunteers sent from an NGO based in Bangalore, had barely any place to stand, let alone squat. The petite room had enormous bags containing food grains and sprouts, taking up most of the space. The gas stove was pushed to the wall and the anganwadi helper sat there, cooking sweet khichidi for the children’s mid-day meal, while the tiny-tots amused themselves.
“We send the kids to the public toilets to freshen up before lunchtime” said the anganwadi teacher, Ms Manjula when asked about the toilet facilities provided to them. The anganwadi has been sanctioned a room behind public toilets in Ambedkar Nagar. Scrunching up her nose in response to the overpowering stench of urine coming from the bathrooms, Manjula described to us the several trips she made to the District Commissioner’s office in hopes of getting a bigger room if not a better location altogether.
Anganwadi is basically a childcare center where children below the age of six are given the necessary nutrition for their development. Each anganwadi is run by an anganwadi worker supported by a helper in integrated service relief and enhanced healthcare facilities, increasing the capacity of women to prosecute malnutrition, abnormal pregnancies and ill health by understanding the importance and methods of childcare, survival and development.
The sufferings of many a community could be minimized by merely creating awareness on the amenities provided by the government that benefit the people. A service named Asha karyakarthe is established mostly in villages where a group of people are assigned the job of doing a door-to-door survey to find out the number of pregnant women and getting them to register their newly born into the nearest anganwadi. They are also required to give basic family planning awareness and to new mothers, the different facilities they have access to. Unfortunately, for the anganwadi workers, these kinds of door-to-door survey work have become their responsibility. Manjula described to me how difficult these tasks became and how their salary wasn’t remotely close to the complications they had to face regarding the several errands they had to run. Once the pregnant women register into anganwadis, it becomes the anganwadi workers’ responsibility to see that these soon to be mothers get sufficient nourishment and easy access to food. Two kilograms of wheat and rice along with half a kilogram of jaggery are distributed among expecting women. Also, 500 to 600 grams of moong dal and toor dal are given away and as per the rules given by authorities. These women must use jaggery and toor dal to make a kind of special payasam, a sweet dish, that is supposedly good for their baby. Expecting women can take benefits from this scheme until the baby is six months old. Once the child begins coming to the anganwadi, he/she will be given take-home packets until three years of age. The forage will include chiroti rava and manni (ragi) packets. This is done to see that the child continues to receive ample nourishment.
As for children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), the government gives them special care through anganwadis. Malnutrition is caused by a diet mostly lacking calories and proteins that are vital for maintaining good health. It can be quite harmful if it isn’t addressed at a young age. If a child is malnourished, his growth might be stunted and it can have adverse effects on his or her mental health. Malnutrition in the form of iodine deficiency is seen among newly born children and even their mothers. This often results in a steep decline in their IQ levels and their grasping power is highly affected, shaving incalculable potential off our nation’s development. Several surveys have concluded that iron deficiency in children below the age of two can have acute, if not chronic impact on the functioning of their brain. Improving the awareness among general population about nutritious meals has proven to be effective in refining a child’s spatial memory capacity. Therefore, the anganwadis not only make families aware of the importance of a nutritious diet, but also provides the children with the nourishment they need when under their care. They receive milk and eggs four days a week in their respective anganwadis. Also, the child is given 20 grams of milk powder to take home to their family. Their philosophy being to work towards decreasing the child mortality rate in the country and producing socially, physically and mentally fit children, the anganwadi workers focus on addressing the malnutrition cases by complying with the provisions given by the government. Rs 300 are put into their account to cover the expenditure of milk and eggs every four months. The teachers conduct a monthly weight check of their children as well as those who are too young to come to anganwadis.
Upon enquiring about the difficulties faced by anganwadi workers, Ms. Jaylaxmi, an anganwadi worker in Udupi district elucidated her side of the story. “We can make ourselves heard only by staging protests” she said, referring to the protest they had steered in June 2012 by marching from Tiger Circle to the District Commissioner’s office in Manipal. “We are not recognized as government employees. The jobs given to us are not considered government jobs” Jayalaxmi revealed while explaining to me the reasons behind this protest of theirs. Since they are not government workers, they get poor salary and no pension plans after stepping down. Anganwadi workers have numerous responsibilities on their hands. They look after the children, maintain records of schemes, services provided for BPL card holders, SAM children etc. so that the superintendent who visits them once every month can check and report back to the office, and at the same time they also conduct house-to-house survey to collect data relating to pregnant women, girl children, basic education, weight checking, spreading awareness on nutrition and setting up doctor appointments. This becomes a very hard and trying task for these women who are paid a measly amount that hardly goes up to Rs 5000. After staging this protest, their salaries were increased, pension plans began to function and also now, these anganwadi workers are recognized as permanent employees if not still government employees. “We have been assigned uniforms and name tags. This is for us to seem more professional and welcoming to new families, I suppose” said Jayalaxmi.
It is surprising how half the population of India is not aware of the availability of such services and even more surprising is that more than half that population belongs to the well-off privileged classes. Is it due to the lack of need of such services that arise from within these communities? Or is it the competitive air that is compelling people to enroll their children into pre-schools at the age of 2? Women from the not-so-developed parts of India are seen participating in self help groups and meetings regarding women empowerment, thus taking quite a few steps in influencing the policy making. The SHG meetings and other similar women related get-togethers happen in the nearest anganwadi center. These are ever so beneficial for the women since they touch upon the social and financial aspects and also impart awareness and knowledge on various issues regarding childcare, health and family planning.
The potential residing in anganwadis is something that cannot be overlooked. Anganwadis work with the community, nurturing the children, educating women and preparing the society to tackle their problems. Begin with the small pieces and the bigger pieces will fall into place, is a very commonly used phrase. Anganwadis sure play well with this saying.
The author is a student pursuing a master’s degree in Medical and Psychiatric Social Work in Mangalore, India, after completing a 3 year Bachelor course in Journalism and Communication. Not having had as many experiences as the others claim to have, she merely looks for a platform to express her views as well as her ideas. She believes in expanding her thinking and knowledge through the means of writing, experiencing and researching. Drop a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, for she always open to suggestions, comments and constructive criticisms.
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