Five-year-old Saima hurries through the zig-zag hilly terrain clutching an empty steel plate in one hand, balancing her feeble body on the dangerous trek with the other. When asked about the rush, she replies breathlessly, not caring to turn, “Aaj center khula hai, khichdi leni hai.”
The center Saima is rushing to is the Anganwadi Kendra where children her age arrive every morning, traveling distances considered long for their age, with hopes of receiving a nutritious meal along with day care facility. However, the center located in the Panchayat Arai Malkha of Mandi Block, approximately thirty kilometers from Poonch town in Jammu and Kashmir, supposedly operational all week, but does not follow the guidelines, neither in terms of operation nor its objectives.
Most of the time, little Saimas, despite their long hard trek, return empty handed as the Anganwadi worker and helper are not present to cater to these innocent beneficiaries. Reasons (read excuses) vary predictably, the Anganwadi worker’s grandmother has expired (for the tenth time in a year, if anyone cares to count) or is unwell (yet again); ration supply is not available; parents are not sending their children to the center... the list is diverse.
These Anganwadi Kendras, set up under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) launched in 1975 by the Central Government to fight the issue of malnutrition, aims at the holistic development of children below the age of six years, expectant and nursing mothers and adolescent girls. This involves providing a package of services comprising supplementary nutrition, immunization, health check-ups, referral services, pre-school education and nutrition and health education. The ICDS is aimed particularly at the most vulnerable sections of the population and in disadvantaged areas such as backward rural areas, tribal tracts and urban slums.
As per the 2001 Census, the population of children under the age of six in India was around 160 million, approximately 15 per cent of India's total population. A vast majority of these children live in an economic and social environment which impedes their physical and mental development. These conditions include poor environmental sanitation, disease, infection and inadequate access to primary healthcare. In states like Jammu and Kashmir where, besides these socio-economic factors, conflict plays a major role in affecting the physical and mental health of children, such schemes have a larger responsibility to perform.
The good-intentioned format makes ICDS one of the world’s largest community-based child development programmes. Unfortunately, the scheme, even after almost four decades, has not been able to achieve its desired results, good intentions have not been translated into good results.
Reflected by the current situation of the Anganwadi Centers in this border district of Poonch, one can estimate how little these centers are contributing to the ‘holistic development’ of tender minds.
Mirroring the situation in Mandi Tehsil, Surankote Tehsil faces the same situation in its Anganwadi Centers. According to Sidique Hussain Shah, a local from Kansla Mohalla in Phagla Village of Surankote block, "The only Anganwadi center in Kansla that holds a population of approximately four hundred never gets to see its worker as she lives in Mumbai. The only time we see the doors unlocked is when the center receives rations, supposedly intended for intended beneficiaries."
When the Superintendent of the Social Welfare Department was contacted regarding the situation they stated that they have sent a team for inquiry - drawing further criticism from locals who allege that on the day of the visit by the inquiry team, the helper rounds up the children and stages a fully operational center before the visitors. This continues for a couple of days, after which the lock on the center returns on the third day. And so it continues. A local resident, on condition of anonymity, informed that the center has not functioned since the last visit by the inquiry team.
A similar situation was witnessed in the Bufliaz village of Surankote Tehsil where the Anganwadi Center of Mohalla Setha was found to be locked till noon. When the helper was approached to find the reason, she informed that the Anganwadi worker has started living in Mandi Tehsil after her marriage and visits the center occasionally.
On further questioning regarding the improper functioning of the center, the helper washed her hands of the responsibility, blaming it entirely on the worker who, when contacted on the phone, questioned the right of the caller to ask her such questions!
Anganwadi workers, expected to make the villagers aware of the importance of nutritious food in the growth of the child since the time it is conceived, brazenly shirk their responsibility, jeopardizing the future of not merely a family but of the entire society they are answerable to.
When the concerned officer was contacted to understand the other side of the picture, he took a diplomatic stance, saying that they would be able to fight the problem if they have the support of the villagers; completely avoiding, in effect, the role his team should have played in proper implementation of this ambitious scheme.
In January this year, Preeti Madan, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development announced in an official statement that proper inquiry would be conducted. Three months have passed but the status quo remains.
Another published report reveals that many Social Welfare Officers in Jammu and Kashmir are following corrupt practices such as selling off the ration meant for Anganwadi Kendras and providing low quality ration to these centers, thus playing with the health of several innocent children.
It starts with the selfish motives of one individual which later corrupts the entire society. In areas like Jammu and Kashmir where the trust between the government and the public is already fragile, extra caution is required at each and every step. Villagers believe there is a need to streamline the entire process right from the allotment of the centers, appointment of the worker and the helper, proper surveillance of ration distributed and involving the beneficiaries to know whether they are receiving the benefits of the scheme. The Charkha Development Communications Network feels that this will not only help make little Saima’s hard work worthwhile but also help build for her a healthier future.