Loot in the name of malnourished child

If, at the end of 35 years, a mere fraction of children in this country benefited from the world’s largest children’s programmes ever, it is a sad reflection on the authorities implementing it. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) launched by Unicef in 1975 was an extraordinary and ambitious programme that was meant to eradicate the two worst threats to childhood — infant and maternal mortality. In addition, it also envisaged a healthy infancy through wholesome nutrition and proper immunisation against childhood diseases. Education on family welfare completed the picture.

Consisting of a package of six vital components, it offered infants and expectant mothers ante-natal and post-natal care, immunisation against common childhood diseases in addition to referral health services. Older children were offered supplementary nutrition, pre-school education and regular health monitoring. The anganwadis were places where these services were offered.

What made this programme unique was that the child was visualised as the main beneficiary of all the available resources and basic services. It was an innovative project, initially supported by Unicef, to be implemented by the Government of India. It came at a critical time when India ranked among the countries which had the highest infant mortality rate. Nearly 110 babies out of every 1,000 live births died before they completed six months.

Still struggling

Today we find nearly 50 per cent of young infants in the country still underweight. Another 80 per cent of older infants are anaemic. And, most shameful of all, 44 per cent young children are sadly malnourished despite the supplementary ‘nutrition’ packages said to be distributed to 72 million children and 15 million pregnant mothers!

The allocation for ICDS was more than Rs 60,000 crore in 2009. Earlier findings of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) have revealed gross misuse of funds resulting in sub-standard nutrition and medical supplies reaching the anganwadis. But, such reports have left the authorities unperturbed. Instead of taking remedial measures, the respective governments have only increased the number of anganwadis, which means more funds.

Apart from the corruption that has seeped into what should have been an invaluable programme for the country’s future, the government has misunderstood the very rationale of this concept. When Unicef started it in India, it was meant to be a people’s programme, not a state controlled one that it has turned out to be. The generous funds were not to be frittered away on buildings and infrastructure.

The anganwadi, which was the pivotal point where these services were rendered, could be a school, a temple or any other friendly place where the beneficiaries could assemble in large numbers. The anganwadi worker should be none other than the child’s own parent, guardian or friendly neighbour. If it was an urban slum, the slum dwellers themselves were to be given the responsibility of ensuring that the child received his or her quota of nutrition, immunisation and proper medicare.

If it was a rural anganwadi, the village elders including the child’s guardians shared this responsibility. The government social welfare departments merely had to oversee that the food and medical supplies reached the anganwadis. Preferably, it was planned that the food distributed to the children should be entrusted to the mothers themselves.

Anganwadi workers then are the key persons in this programme. They form the main linkages between the agencies who distribute the services and the child beneficiaries. Anganwadis are not avenues for employment generation. With undue politicisation, they have today degenerated into places where political favours are given and received. Far from being the caretakers of their own children, the workers have turned into militant forces demanding all the perks and benefits of salaried employees.

It is unfortunate that both the governments implementing the programme, as well as the communities for which it was launched, have missed out on this very important truth, namely — it is a community programme to be managed by the community and not the government.

If the Karnataka government claims to be one of the better managed states with regard to these services, one can imagine the state of affairs elsewhere. As a Unicef representative once pointed out to this writer, the ICDS will succeed only if it becomes a people’s programme with government participation, instead of deteriorating into a mere government programme.

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