Child welfare

Left in the lurch

Print edition : April 12, 2019

Thousands of aganwadi workers protest at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi demanding the right to employment on March 3. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Children in an anganwadi centre in Chokkanahalli in Malur near Bengaluru. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Anganwadis, which provide crucial support to children belonging to economically backward and marginalised communities, have been hit hard by the reduction in budgetary support for the ICDS by the Central government.

About 50 kilometres away from Bengaluru, in an anganwadi in Malur, B.S. Nagarathna was teaching the names of the months of the year to a group of children between the ages of four and six. “January,” she yelled and the small room in the Madiga-dominated colony resonated with the shrill sound of lusty young voices as they screamed “January” in unison.

This anganwadi in the A.D. (Adi Dravida) Colony in the town has 25 children on its records, of whom 10 are boys. If we look at the caste and religious identity of the children at this particular anganwadi, 12 of them belong to the Madiga community, a Scheduled Caste, and Muslims, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Caste students make up the rest. Children in anganwadis are usually from backward castes, tribal communities and Dalit and Muslim families. Often, there are more girls than boys since parents, if they can afford it, prefer to send the sons to private nurseries.

The main function of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme under the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development is the provision of care to prevent malnutrition in children in the age group of 0-6 years. A total of 13.63 lakh anganwadis (at the end of May 2018) are spread all over the country and these are the nodal centres that provide this care. For children of economically and socially backward parents who live in rural India and cannot afford private preschool education, the anganwadi is a precious space. This is the place where they are assured of at least one hearty meal a day.

In Karnataka, for instance, a child is given milk and a healthy snack, apart from a meal of freshly prepared rice and sambar. Twice a week, an egg is added to the lunch as a nutritional supplement. These centres also provide non-formal preschool education which scores low on quality but prepares the children for school. The anganwadi also maintains a record of immunisations administered and the overall health of the children. Pregnant women and lactating mothers are also given a meal at the anganwadi and referral services are provided when needed.

India is ranked 103 on the Global Hunger Index and has the largest number of malnourished children in the world. Considering the important role that the anganwadis play in alleviating child malnutrition, it would make sense if the budgetary allocation for the ICDS is increased every year, if only to factor in inflation. But, since the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre in 2014, there has been a decline in the funds allocated to the ICDS.

Budgetary allocations to the ICDS

If we look at the core allocation to anganwadi services in the Union Budget between 2014-15 (the first Annual Financial Statement of the NDA government) and compare it with later Budgets, we see this clearly. In 2014-15, Rs.16,562 crore was allocated, which declined to Rs.15,484 crore in 2015-16. It was further reduced to Rs.14,561 crore in 2016-17. There was a marginal increase in the subsequent two years: Rs.15,245 crore (2017-18) and Rs.16,335 crore (2018-19), but this just about matched the allocation in the last Budget of the previous United Progressive Alliance government (Rs.16,058 crore in 2013-14).

“After the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission (implemented in April 2015), the share of States in Central taxes went up from 32 per cent to 42 per cent. This meant that the allocation for Centrally sponsored schemes, including the ICDS, went down. This has hit poorer States much more than richer States and this could have an adverse impact on indicators such as wasting, stunting and early education,” said Jyotsna Jha, director of the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in Bengaluru.

The Centre and the States share the expenditure on anganwadi services. This expenditure includes the payment of honorariums to anganwadi workers and helpers and the purchase of raw materials for the Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP). The ratio of sharing varies for separate heads of expenditure. For example, for the SNP, the Centre’s and the State’s share are equal, while for the construction of new anganwadis, the entire amount is contributed by the State government. In a glaring change in policy at the end of 2017, the Centre, which used to contribute 60 per cent for a wide array of expenses such as school and medicine kits and administrative costs, cut its contribution to 25 per cent. So, while the relatively richer States have made up for the shortfall in Central allocation through an increase in State budgetary allowances, poorer States have been hit hard.

This shortfall has also affected anganwadi workers all over the country. In Karnataka, for instance, by the end of 2015, there were 64,558 anganwadis, of which 3,331 were mini-anganwadis. Each full-fledged anganwadi employs a worker and a helper (who are paid Rs.8,000 and Rs.4,000 a month as honorariums respectively) while the mini-anganwadis have one person who combines both the roles. There are currently around 125,000 anganwadi workers and helpers in Karnataka. The Centre and the State share the payment of the honorariums. In Karnataka, 40 per cent of the honorarium is paid by the Centre and the remainder is paid by the State government.

Over the past few years, anganwadi workers under the aegis of different unions have been demanding that their jobs be confirmed and they be paid a minimum salary of Rs.18,000 a month, but this demand has not been addressed. “This government has not been sympathetic to the status of anganwadi workers at all,” said S. Varalakshmi, the Bengaluru-based vice president of the All India Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Federation, which claims to represent 92,000 workers in Karnataka. “This is only a gimmick government that wants to take credit without doing anything. Narendra Modi announced in his ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme in September 2018 that the honorarium given to anganwadi workers would be increased by Rs.1,500. What he did not mention is that this expenditure would be shared with the State governments; he made it sound like it was all the Central government’s doing. When the scheme was included in the interim Budget in February 2019, some media outlets made it sound like this Rs.1,500 increase was given twice, which is not correct. I seriously doubt whether even this increase will be given as, according to our calculations, the budgetary allocation does not support this increase in honorarium. So, what is Modi talking about?” said Varalakshmi.

Back in the anganwadi in A.D. Colony, the smell of sambar wafted into the room from the tiny kitchen and the kids knew that their lunch was being prepared. Between her lessons, a four-year-old shyly stated her name; “Anushree,” she said. While the child smiled sweetly, Nagarathna explained the bitter realities that lay behind the smile. Her father, who was an alcoholic, is dead, while her mother, who has three other children, works as a cleaner in shops in Malur. “The meal here in the anganwadi is the only full meal that she’ll have today,” said Nagarathna.

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