A bright yellow giraffe painted on its wall announces that the small building in Lingenahalli village, off a busy road in Tumkur’s Madhugiri constituency, is an anganwadi. The children, having had their milk and lunch, are playing outside. Anganwadi worker S D Parvathiamma awaits the group of pregnant and lactating women who will have their bisi oota, or hot cooked meal: rice and sambhar, a glass of milk, a boiled egg, and a peanut chikki.
Parvathiamma does not expect any Lingayat or Brahmin women in the group. “They don’t even send their children. They won’t eat with people from other castes,” says the 52-year-old, herself a Madiga Dalit.
For a year now, this anganwadi, without electricity or a toilet, has been serving meals under the state’s Mathru Poorna scheme. Nutrition and food security are a thrust of the “Karnataka welfare model” on which the Congress is banking in the elections. The flagship programme, Anna Bhagya, makes rice and dal available to families below the poverty line (BPL); the anganwadi is at the centre of efforts to address challenges of hunger, low birth-weight and malnutrition — by focusing on the health of children and women.
Among the southern states, Karnataka has the worst figures for both infant mortality (24 per 100 live births) and maternal mortality (133 deaths per 100,000 live births). All children are entitled to eggs twice a week, and a glass of whole milk every day under the Motte Bhagya and Ksheera Bhagya schemes. The Siddaramaiah administration has pushed for consumption of eggs to deal with stunting and malnourishment.
The government says 8.3 lakh women have benefited from Mathru Poorna. “Earlier, take-home rations given to pregnant women were used in the family kitchen,” says Kempa Hanumaiah, child development project officer (CDPO) of Tumkur district.
The Mathru Poorna programme began in February 2017 with four pilot schemes including Madhugiri, and was scaled up across the state in October last year. According to the state government’s human development report 2014, the taluk is an outlier in south Karnataka, with “very poor” health indicators, comparable to the most backward regions of the state. “Women in our rural areas work hard but eat the last, and never get adequate food. This one meal is for them,” says Hanumaiah.
But whether that will lead women to vote for the ruling party might depend on, among other things, their place in the social and caste hierarchy. Anitalakshmi, 38, a Vokkaliga woman from the village, praises the Anna Bhagya scheme but is unhappy with local Congress MLA, K T Rajanna. “He only listens to Congress supporters. We might give the JD(S) candidate a chance,” she says. “Of course, everyone has benefited from the rice and the anganwadi meals, but look how much we have to pay for electricity.”
Jayamma, 45, a Dalit woman in Lingenahalli who gets a destitute widows’ pension of Rs 500, and works on landowners’ fields for Rs 150 a day is, however, emphatic that “Because of this government, we have not gone hungry this year”. Standing with her is 23-year-old Kamala, who uses a free bus pass for girl students to travel to Tumkur, 40 km away, for B.Ed classes. “Earlier, if children asked for food, women struggled, or gave them leftovers from the previous night,” continues Jayamma. “But now they can get good food at the anganwadi.”
But there is wide disparity in the state of the anganwadis across Karnataka, and many report pilferage. In Mallabad village in Gulbarga, children and women were being given half an egg twice a week, and in Lad Chincholi, villagers say one of three anganwadis rarely function. “The scheme is good, but unlike in Anna Bhagya, there is a lot of corruption in the implementation,” says Vithal Chikani, an activist of the Samajika Parivartana Janandolana, which has worked on nutrition issues in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region for a decade now.
In Shetanahalli village in Yadgir district, the anganwadi is a dark, airless room, into which 15-odd children are packed. Supervisor Mallamma says it is difficult to persuade women to come for meals because they leave for work early in the morning. “They work in the fields until they are nine months pregnant. Sometimes, we manage to pack the meals for them, but not always.”
Women and Child Development Minister Umashree, a lawmaker from Terdal in Bagalkote district, says the Mathru Poorna scheme “was not devised keeping in mind electoral gains, but because it was necessary for the health of women”. However, she says, “It is one of many welfare schemes that will influence people while voting.”
In an anganwadi in Belladamudugu village in Madhugiri, baby Trisha sleeps in her mother Manjula’s lap. She was 3 kg at birth and, two months later, weighs double that. “We don’t get to eat this nutritious food at home,” says 20-year-old Manjula. Another new mother, Thimirajani, 25, says: “At home, the food has to be shared by all. But this is meant only for us.”Is that something that will be on their mind when they go to vote? “I really don’t know,” says Manjula, with a smile.