Vinoba Bhave in his inspirational Gita Pravachan wrote “what the children learn within the first three to four years is what is firmly imprinted on their minds. It is during the early years that real learning takes place”. India has the largest population of the children in the world with 160 million children of less than six years of age. But around 50% of children in the country are malnourished. Over two million children in India die every year before the age of five. One out of 12 girls does not survive till the age of one. If this trend continues, our progress as a nation will be greatly impeded. We need a movement on a war-footing to give to our children what is rightfully theirs — a childhood that is not deprived of health, nutrition and education. This is a movement where all must join hands — individuals, civil society, corporates and the government. The anganwadi programme can and must form the bedrock of this movement.
The anganwadi programme introduced in 1975 was a revolutionary initiative of its time. For the first time, a programme focused on the overall development of a child. It brought in a community approach and capacity building framework to child care. Today, 14 lakh anganwadi centres reach out to about 7.5 crore children under six years of age and to 1.8 crore mothers. The budget for the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) has been increased substantially to Rs. 1,29,000 crore in the 12th Five Year Plan.
In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court called for the universalisation of ICDS and for extending it to every child under the age of six and all pregnant women. The relevance of the anganwadi was re-emphasised by the apex court in a 2011 judgment. The government has done a phenomenal job putting together a nationwide 14 lakh anganwadi infrastructure but a lot more needs to be done. Today, we need the involvement of corporates in a philanthropy model. Corporates can not only bring in funds but also management expertise, training intervention and project management skills.
At Vedanta, we have made a small beginning by partnering with the government in over 14,000 anganwadi centres and have reached out to 5,00,000 children since 2008. If more corporate houses join hands, we can make a significant impact in this initiative.
There are three areas of corporate intervention. First, the infrastructure facility for the children. Many anganwadis function without basic infrastructure like buildings and toilets while many others need urgent repair.
Second and the most important factor for the success of this programme is the anganwadi worker. I prefer calling her the anganwadi teacher. Drawn from the local community, the teacher constitutes the core of this initiative and training her well becomes an extremely important task. A fully-trained anganwadi teacher can make a difference to a generation of children and thus to the whole community. Corporates can bring in the latest training and learning modules, aided by technology.
Nutrition and healthcare constitute the third factor for success. Providing nutritious meals at the anganwadi will not only attract children but will also go a long way in improving the overall health index of India. Corporates can join hands with the government in providing nutritious meals and regular health check-ups.
To urgently bring down the level of malnutrition from the current 50%, we need some radical innovations in dietary supplements. NASA research on dietary supplements for astronauts has led to enriched baby food used in many countries. Closer home in Karnataka, a coconut-based MCT oil supplement piloted in anganwadis has resulted in some promising outcomes. We can use some of these innovative approaches to fight acute malnutrition in India.
‘Adopt Anganwadi’ movement could be converted into a national mass movement with the involvement of individuals and civil society. This could be in the form of volunteerism at centres, donations, innovating with play materials, training of teachers, educating underprivileged mothers and expectant mothers. The possibilities are immense.
Finally, we need the rights and well-being of children under six, to be not just a government priority, but a political imperative as well. As we approach the next general elections, there is a strong case for all political parties to incorporate childcare as an important part of their election manifesto.
Anil Agarwal is chairman, Vedanta Group
The views expressed by the author are personal