Integrated Child Development Services: a largely unnoticed scheme that needs timely intervention

In another three years, India will commemorate the 50th Anniversary for one of its earliest flagship programmes, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). The programme’s intention is to ensure Early Childhood Care and Development for Children between 0-6 years of age. Beyond this, the programme also caters to the needs of pregnant and lactating mothers by providing nutritional supplements, along with  Iron and Folic Acid supplements to them. The nutritional requirements of Out of School Adolescent Girls are also fulfilled through Anganwadi Centres. In this article, we will be looking at how the scheme has been and the challenges faced, what are the reforms needed for better performance and effective outcome of the scheme. Before getting into the details, I wish to inform you that this article is written based on my recent Internship in Tiruvallur District of Tamil Nadu. During that phase, I visited almost 50 Anganwadi Centres in Tiruvallur District, studied their functioning, challenges and worked to improve Anganwadi centres. Though my visits are only within one particular district, the observations and suggestions will not be particular and can be implemented across the country. 

Observations

Firstly, Anganwadi Centres are identified in such a manner that all aspects are covered. Major aspects include, Centres from both rural and urban areas, Centres functioning on Government and Rental buildings, Centres having full staff and centres with vacancy. In the preliminary observation it was shocking to identify that urban centres’ Infrastructure are in abysmal state when compared with centres in rural areas. In rural areas, most of the centres have own building with space for Classroom, Kitchen and Toilet whereas in urban areas, centres run on rental buildings, classroom and kitchen functions in the same space and there is no toilet. Most of the urban centres are covered by asbestos sheets at the top instead of concrete roof which leads to increased room temperature which affects the children. This is shocking because it is completely contradictory to the general perception in society that urban areas are well developed in all aspects compared to rural areas. Also, it is believed from outside that in urban centres, Children aren’t sent to Anganwadis and rather they are going to private preschools. This perception is only half true because in urban centres, there are thousands of families living in congested slums, migrants from other states are settled here and for their children Anganwadi centres are the only option since they cannot afford for anything else.

Secondly, Budget for food related expenses is really low. In this I’m addressing the Budget provision for Vegetables, Dhal and Grocery only because major items like Rice, Nutritional mix is provided by the Government and the State Government also provides fixed sum for providing Egg to children. But, for vegetables only 110 paisa is provided per child for a day and for Dhal it is 96 paisa, for Grocery it is 36 paisa. This miniscule fund is fixed and with that nothing can be bought because at the maximum one centre can spend around 50 rupees for these items and it has to cater to the needs of around 25 children on an average and when there is inflation, the situation will be more horrific. We are in the era where more than caloric needs, nutritional requirements are focused upon. The problem of “Hidden Hunger” is the reason why multiple forms of malnourishment like Stunting, Wasting, Under-weight still persist at the alarming level and with such miniscule funds, “Tomorrow’s India” may not be healthy and fit enough to realise its aspirations.

Thirdly, there exists the perennial problem of vacancy in Anganwadi Centres. An Anganwadi Centre should have one Anganwadi Worker to conduct classes and one Anganwadi Helper to cook food. In addition, these people have visit houses of pregnant and lactating mothers, out of school children, industries like brick kilns where large number of families reside to provide nutritional supplements, IFA supplements etc., Considering the volume of work, 2 staffs alone is not sufficient and there are voices from many experts that an Anganwadi Centre should have 2 Anganwadi Workers, one for field visits and one for taking classes, whereas the reality is that around 30% of the centres doesn’t have Anganwadi workers and for those centres in-charge workers are appointed from nearby centres. Such workers have to visit their additional charge centres twice a week. So effectively around 60% of centres will not have full services of Anganwadi Workers on all working days because 30% doesn’t have Anganwadi Workers and for those 30% another 30% Anganwadi Workers are given additional duty. This is alarming since more than half of the children are deprived of gaining from Anganwadi Centres at the maximum possible level.

Fourthly, there is no specific address for Anganwadi Centres in most cases. They are generally identified by nearby landmarks like Government Schools, Offices and Temples. For centres functioning within the school campus, it may not be a problem but not all centres function within the school campus and they should have proper addresses. 

Fifthly, Every Anganwadi Centre is allowed to use only 4 cylinders per year and if there arises a situation where an additional cylinder is required, Workers are bearing the cost for it since there is no other alternate arrangement. 

These are the observations that can be generalised across the country. Based on this an initiative called, “Project SMILE” was proposed in which “SMILE” stands for “Smart Mother Igniting Healthy Life and Education”. Reforms suggested can be classified as “Critical Infrastructure” and “Desired Infrastructure”.

Critical Infrastructure

First, Every Anganwadi Centre should have their own building with separate space for Classroom, Kitchen, Store room and Baby Friendly Toilet. The entire space area for this infrastructure may not cross 600 sq. ft. and this space can be easily identified by local bodies. Having its own building is essential because while providing replacement materials and funds for those materials, approvals are given to centres operating in their own building only. Centres operating in rented places won’t get replacement for playing materials, office materials etc., and the reason cited is that those centres may shift to some other place anytime and so until a permanent building is found out no centre is getting office and classroom replacement materials.

Second, Focus on “First 1000 Days” of a child should increase. Children come to Anganwadi Centres after 2 years of age. But the period before that is very crucial. Right from pregnancy to 2 years of age is the “First 1000 Days” period and Child’s healthy growth and development gets decided in this phase. So Anganwadis should create awareness among parents regarding healthy diet and lifestyle practices. Generally only mothers are advised regarding this, but fathers too have more responsibility because in most cases only male members are the breadwinner and only when they come to know about the importance of having healthy food and lifestyle practices, will they understand the needs of pregnant women in a better way. In Tiruvallur District, we launched a voice message campaign through WhatsApp in which messages will be recorded and shared to Pregnant Parents every week. Messages are not randomly circulated. Messages for each trimester, first 6 months of a child, after 6 months to 2 years are recorded separately and every parent will receive advice for those periods which they are going through currently. These messages will be circulated through Anganwadi Workers who can identify pregnant mothers in their area through PIC-ME registration (Pregnancy Registration Number in Tamil Nadu).

Third, Every Anganwadi Centre should have a Kitchen Garden. At least 50 – 100 sq. ft. is to be made available for cultivating short term crops that can be added into foods of children. Vegetables, Greens, and one or two fruit bearing trees can be grown. Locally available vegetables and trees should be cultivated for having nutritious food through an easily available diet. This will address the problem of “Hidden Hunger” to some extent with minimum expenditure. With the miniscule budget that is available for vegetables and groceries, the problem of “Hidden Hunger” will only grow. To address this menace, Kitchen Gardens are the need of the hour.

Fourth, ensuring every vacancy is filled as soon as possible. We speak about below par performance with respect to learning outcomes among children in primary schools. For better learning outcomes, focus should start from Anganwadi Centres in which a child grows after 2 years of age. For improving learning capabilities a worker has to be present at all times in Anganwadi Centres so that they can teach children sufficiently. Early childhood care and development plays a huge role in personality development of a child and Anganwadi Workers play a major part in it. Hence there should be no vacancies at Anganwadis so that the centres’ benefits can be fully utilised.

Fifth, Locations of Anganwadi Centres have to be Geo-tagged and should have proper address. This is an absolute necessity because Anganwadis receive rations through Cooperative societies and most of the times societies don’t directly supply rations to the Anganwadis citing there is no clear route/address. Anganwadi Workers are forced to pay extra for transit to bring rations to the centres. Considering the salary they are getting, these additional costs from their own hand is huge and this issue is largely unnoticed so far.

Sixth, Anganwadi Workers should be given regular training on how to handle kids. Anganwadis are the first place where a child comes without their family members. This is a place where socialisation begins and it is not just a place for eating and learning. Workers should be made aware of this and they should be counselled by psychologists on how to handle kids. It will make Workers child friendly and empathetic which will result in parents themselves getting motivated to send their children to Anganwadi Centres.

Desired Infrastructure

While the aforementioned Infrastructures are to be ensured without any delay, the following can be kept as vision and Government’s initiatives should move in fulfilling these visions. In Anganwadi Centres, malnourished children who are stunted, wasted, under-weight and anemia can be identified and additional nutritional supplements can be provided to them separately. This initiative is not new. In Kerala, nutritional supplement called “That Amrutham” is provided to malnourished children. Similar initiatives have been by Mumbai Corporation. In Tiruvallur District, steps are taken to provide “Amla Candy” to children on a trial basis. Trainings were given to 80 Anganwadi Helpers for making “Amla Candy” and CSR sources were identified for sponsoring the cost involved in making those candies. I wish to add this in Critical Infrastructure but considering the budget allotments, it may not be possible right now but “it should be” in near future.

Like the Education Department which develops Model Schools in every district, every District can have their own Model Anganwadis in the name called “SMART Anganwadis’ ‘. SMART Anganwadis should have a Smart classroom set up, CCTV camera, playing area and additional nutritional support to ensure that the centre is malnourishment free. Smart classroom set up will be useful in situations like high vacancies because children can be made to learn in one form or other. If budgetary support is limited, Corporates can be asked to adopt Anganwadis in their areas under CSR. For this CSR policy can be amended to ensure that a particular amount is spent on Early Childhood Care and Development.

Above all, the State’s budgetary support for ICDS has to be increased. Most of the diseases which people get at later stages of their life can be prevented if Early Childhood Care and Development is properly taken care of. Government should develop a long term vision which should have the perspective of, “If we invest more in Early Childhood Care and Development now, then the expenditure for Healthcare at later stages can be reduced”. If the State moves with this vision, there won’t be huge Budgetary Expenditure in the longer run. This vision will ensure that there will be no malnourishment and below par learning outcomes. Currently in India, One-third of the children are stunted, one in two girl children are anaemic and more than 20% of the children are underweight. Also, according to UNICEF India, around 55% of the school children don’t have basic learning capabilities in Mathematics and Language. These two problems can be addressed simultaneously if Anganwadi Centres are given more budgetary support, infrastructure facilities and proper training to Anganwadi workers. Anganwadi Centres are the first place for socialisation, learning and development and if its potential is utilised to the maximum, the problems that are foreseen in future can be easily avoided. For that to happen, all we need is vision and commitment of all stakeholders involved. Let the civil society nudge state towards this vision by starting to celebrate five decades of ICDS as a yearlong campaign and create awareness among the society on importance of Early Childhood Care and Development so that India can become malnourishment free in near future.

About Vignesh Vignesh Varun Gandhi C

Vignesh Varun Gandhi C. works as a Young Professional in the Tamil Nadu Rural Transformation Project. He has completed his Master's in Public Administration and wishes to develop a career in public policy consulting. His interests include reading, chess and cricket.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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