FOR ONE hour every day, Minu Bibi, 26, would leave her three-year-old son Afridi at the anganwadi centre in her village Kihidirpur Paschimpara, in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. That hour allowed Minu, four months pregnant with her second child, to finish her chores, after which she would reach the anganwadi centre to pick him up. She had been doing this for two months.
Plus, under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) — the world’s largest scheme of its kind that’s meant to provide nutrition and health services to all pregnant and lactating mothers and children under six years of age — the son and mother would get eggs and khichdi from the anganwadi centre.
On May 24, when the food was being distributed, Afridi took his egg and share of khichdi in the utensils that his mother had sent with him, and asked the anganwadi worker, Saheri Bawa, for his mother’s share of the egg. According to Minu, when he kept pestering, Saheri got angry, pulled Afridi’s trousers down, and poured the hot khichdi down his backside.
Doctors at the Raghunathgunj super speciality hospital, where Minu and her parents rushed Afridi, say the child received burns on his back, near his anus and the back of his knees.
With her husband Chamak Sheikh working as a mason and daily wage labourer in Kolkata, Minu and Afridi have been living at her parents’ home in Kihidirpur Paschimpara.
Saheri Bewa, the accused anganwadi helper who had been working at the centre for the last two years, is in judicial custody, with police invoking Sections 321 (voluntary causing hurt) and 326 (voluntary causing grievous hurt) of the IPC, apart from Section 22 of the Child Protection Act against her. Says Murshidabad Superintendent of Police Mukesh Kumar, “She apparently did this spontaneously, out of anger. An investigation is underway.”
Recalling the day the incident happened, Minu says, “I would generally take Afridi to the centre at 8 am and bring him back at 9 am. I would also send some utensils with him for getting back the khichdi and eggs. On Friday, I was about to leave to get Afridi when I saw him running home in tears and without his trousers. When I picked him up, a portion of the skin on his back came off. I rushed him to a local doctor, and then to the hospital, where he was admitted.”
Minu says when Afridi told her what had happened, her relatives confronted Saheri. “She said Afridi had got burnt while opening a tiffin box full of khichdi. But then how did he burn his backside and not his hands? The anganwadi worker did not inform me or my family either. After I leave my child there, he is their responsibility,” says Minu.
The Sunday Express tried to contact the other worker in the anganwadi centre for her version of the events of the day, but she refused to comment.
Minu lodged a police complaint the same evening and Saheri was arrested the next day, with the Block Development Officer (BDO) and other government officials calling on Afridi. No compensation has been announced so far.
Minu accuses Saheri of denying food to children in the past too. “Last Wednesday, she refused Afridi khichdi and egg because he was a little late in reaching the centre. He is a small boy and sometimes wakes up late. But if you fail to take the child to the centre before 8 am, they don’t give food.”
Nearly 120 children are registered at the anganwadi centre where Afridi went, with two workers to teach, cook and look after the children. The anganwadi, which runs six days a week from Monday to Saturday, has a fixed menu, with khichdi or rice and soyabean curry, along with eggs. While Minu and other parents The Sunday Express spoke to said that they got one egg each — as prescribed under the ICDS scheme — for only three days of the week and that on other days they only got half an egg each, BDO officials denied these claims while saying a probe had been ordered into the incident.
Calling the incident “very unfortunate”, Masadur Rahaman, BDO of Raghunathgunj Block 1, says they carry out weekly inspections of anganwadi centres and submit reports. “Intense monitoring is done. Centres have to keep records of everything.”
Rahaman says they also keep changing the food menu. “It is prepared in advance and is balanced, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.”
Nursing Afridi at home, Minu says she will never send him to the anganwadi centre again. “He is traumatised, he cries every time we mention it and says they will burn him again.”
Some things have, however, changed for the better. “For the last few days, we have been receiving food from the centre — khichdi and egg, sometimes rice, soyabean curry and egg. Now we get full eggs and the anganwadi people have been behaving well with us,” she says.
On June 3, Minu’s husband Chamak Sheikh came home to spend Eid with his family. While Afridi is still in pain, he is happier, says Minu, “because his father is now home and he got Afridi and me some new clothes for Eid”.