Until a month ago, four-and-a-half-year-old Snehal Pawar was malnourished. “Snehal has gained two kilos by eating the meals given by the aanganwadi at Dhobi Ghat [in Dharavi]. She is now 13 kg,” her mother Kanchan said.
Aanganwadi workers also credit Snehal’s weight gain to her mother’s efforts to feed her daughter the right food. “Earlier, she would not eat properly, but now she eats the cooked food at the aanganwadi as well as at home,” said Kanchan.
One of the largest slums in Asia, Dharavi has been a remarkable success as far as beating child malnutrition is concerned.
The slum has fewer severely underweight children between zero and six years of age compared to children in slums in Andheri, Bandra, Khar Santacruz and Shivaji Nagar, as per the June figures of the central government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Experts believe that the large number of non-profit groups working in the area and the slum’s proximity to Sion hospital, a tertiary care hospital, have contributed to the health of Dharavi’s children.
Kanchan’s battle against malnutrition, however, is far from over. Her third and youngest daughter Gayatri, who is 3 years and 10 months old, suffers from severe acute malnutrition. Gayatri, who weighs 10 kilos, is three kilos underweight.
“The price of cooking gas and vegetables are so high; it is expensive to live here,” said Kanchan, whose husband earns Rs 4,000 a month working as a painter. “Sometimes the only meals the children have are the ones at the aanganwadi.”
Despite the struggle to make ends meet, Dharavi’s ICDS project has recorded a gradual decline in the number of malnourished children, from 23.18% in June to 15.70 % in September. However, a baseline survey of 590 households conducted by NGO Sneha last year showed that the percentage of malnutrition in the moderately and severely malnourished categories is 13%.
“We have adopted a community-based management programme to tackle malnutrition in Dharavi,” said M Gaikwad, child development project officer, Dharavi ICDS. Under this programme, health workers include members and leaders of various castes and communities from the area in the project to improve the children’s health.
“We now plan to approach Muslim clerics to make an announcement after prayers, asking families to bring children to the aanganwadi for meals. If we can increase people participation, we can reduce the percentage of malnourished children to less than 1,” said Gaikwad.
Health workers face the usual resistance when it comes to convincing many parents to bring their children to aanganwadis.
Take the case of three-year- old Sakshi Patwa, who is four kilos underweight.
Sakshi, who weighs just eight kilos, has five siblings. Her mother is addicted to gutkha and spends her day making plastic garlands at home to earn extra money.
“Every time we tell her mother to feed the child, she says she has no time. She does not even bathe Sakshi regularly; the child has been constantly suffering from nasal problems,” said the aanganwadi teacher.
“Local non-profit groups and the government working together have brought about these results,” said Devika Deshmukh, project director, Sneha.