A FLAGSHIP pan-India programme to provide supplementary nutrition to the most marginalised, poor children and mothers, is faltering in large pockets across Maharashtra just as beneficiary families run out of earnings and savings during the ongoing 21-day national lockdown.
Under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme, anganwadi centres across India serve nutritious meals to children up to the age of 6 years and to expectant and nursing mothers. But anganwadis now closed, and the delivery of these meals has completely halted in some pockets, while elsewhere beneficiaries are beginning to receive grocery supplies instead of hot cooked meals (HCM). Among the latter, there are wide complaints of inadequate supplies. Meanwhile, an army of anganwadi workers, all women, grapples with long-pending payments while trying to keep the critical scheme afloat.
About 87 lakh children aged up to 6 years are beneficiaries of the scheme, served by nearly 90,000 anganwadis. The ICDS programme is a Centrally supported clutch of schemes offering, among other things, supplementary nutrition to children up to six years, and expectant and nursing mothers. Of 553 ICDS ‘projects’ in the state, 364 are in rural areas.
Even in scheduled areas of Palghar district where malnutrition is a recurring problem, anganwadis such as those in Karajgaon-Vasa, Kurze-Dhodipada and Kurze Kompada haven’t received the grocery material yet, 16 days into the national lockdown and more than 20 days since Maharashtra’s anganwadis were shuttered. Similarly, supplies have not arrived in large parts of Aurangabad, Parbhani, Akola and Sangli. In some districts, groceries have arrived at urban anganwadis only.
Where the material has arrived, packages containing 2 kg each of rice, wheat, dal and chana as well as cooking oil, salt and spices, there are multiple operational problems. “In many villages it’s not possible to go door-to-door, houses are far apart and I wouldn’t be able to carry more than one parcel at a time,” said Swati Meshram, anganwadi sevika at the Talasari-2 unit. With the government not providing any additional funds for gloves and masks, she instructed beneficiaries to gather at the anganwadi where she distributed the parcels, insisting that everyone first wash their hands at the door.
Another dilemma is that the grocery packages will most certainly be consumed by the entire household. Women, including those who are pregnant or lactating, could benefit the least as they’re the last to eat. “There is no work, nobody has earned any wages since March 15-16, so obviously whatever comes home is shared by everyone,” said Jamni Rama Valvi, the 60-year-old helper at the Patilpada anganwadi, where supplies arrived three days back. “Two kg packets won’t last more than eight-10 days for average families, less for larger families,” she said. Pramila Surti, nursing a 10-month-old baby, she said the packages were simply added to the fast-depleting household food stocks.
In tribal-dominated, remote villages where disparities in nutrition and health services are already wide, the missing meal for children and new mothers could have long-term impacts. “Incidence of malnutrition is almost certain to rise in some areas,” says Shubha Shamim of the Maharashtra State Anganwadi Workers Action Committee. “Especially if the lockdown continues and these problems persist.”
In Kurze-Dhodipada where the grocery supplies haven’t come and beneficiary families are waiting expectantly, anganwadi worker Archana Bhoye’s bigger problem is how to keep the scheme functioning when she hasn’t been paid for three months for children’s meals and for six months for the Amrut Aahar meal for pregnant and lactating women. “We’re asked to supply a full nutritious meal in Amrut Aahar for Rs 35, including two vegetables, rice, dal, roti and an egg or a laddoo. It’s already impossible within that cost, and then the government does not clear our outstanding dues for months on end,” she said. With 51 children and 3 women beneficiaries, her approximate expenses are Rs 3,000 per month for one category of beneficiaries. Others have larger groups, and larger pending payments. At Kurze-Kompada, anganwadi worker Sheela Dhodi is the sole earning member of her household of four. “Times get tougher for anganwadi workers also, how long will we be able to wait?” she said.
On March 31, in addition to the ICDS Commissionerate’s order at the start of the lockdown that the HCM be replaced by grocery packages, the Tribal Development Department directed that the HCM be home-delivered for pregnant and lactating women wherever possible in scheduled areas, and a week’s supply of eggs and bananas also be delivered for beneficiary children. On April 1, after a week of the scheme being stalled, when villages in tribal-dominated Jawhar taluka began to receive the HCM in packets, the van arrived as late as 4 pm at some households. “Now it comes at 8 am, whether it’s lunch for the women or cooked eggs for kids, everything is received at 8 am,” said Sundar Saapta, anganwadi sevika of Palaspada village. For children beneficiaries, villages here are not yet receiving either the HCM or grocery packages, said Vandana Lokhande of the anganwadi at Walvanda village.
In Vidarbha’s remote areas such as Dharni in Amravati and parts of Gadchiroli, anganwadi workers are not sure how to distribute the foodgrain — when it arrives — without any transportation. “Where hamlets are located a long way off , distribution is going to be a challenge,” said Dileep Utane, president of the CPI-affiliated All India Trade Union Congress’s union for anganwadi workers. He said supplies arrived in Gondia, Gadchiroli and Wardha, but not at all anganwadis. “In Wardha, for example, the rations for children aged between 3 to 6 years has not arrived in many projects. These are children of very poor people, labourers, marginal farmers, etc. The meal is even more critical for them at this time.”
Then there is the problem of inadequate supplies. While unions had sought all-inclusive packages, Utane said anganwadi workers in many parts of Vidarbha are having to divide or measure out the material. “Unable to count everything when it arrives, anganwadi workers are finding items short while distributing, maybe a packet of oil or a packet of rice, and then there are complaints,” Utane said. He cited one instance where an anganwadi worker was accused in the local press of selling some items.
Minister for Women and Child Development Yashomati Thakur admitted that the ‘take home ration’ is delayed in some parts, either due to the supply chain problems amid the lockdown or availability of specific items, such as masoor dal. “But we are very sensitive about the issue, and we are working to resolve problems wherever they exist. The hot cooked meal is an impossibility right now, but the supply of nutrients is important and will be continued,” she told The Indian Express. Protective gear including masks and gloves for anganwadi workers is also being provided at various places by local government agencies, she said.
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