On the margins

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

in Guwahati

Of the seven north-eastern States, Assam has the highest number of malnourished children. The State-wise details of the Classification of Nutritional Status of Children under the ICDS scheme reveal that as on December 31, 2009, Assam had 6,59,355 moderately malnourished children (Grade 1 and Grade 2) and 10,869 severely malnourished children (Grade 3 and Grade 4). The actual figures must be much higher as a huge number of children are not yet covered by the scheme. These children belong to the poor and downtrodden tea-tribe communities, other tribal communities, religious minorities living in the Char areas, erosion-affected families that have been living on river embankments for years, and families displaced by armed conflicts and ethnic clashes.

The same table, of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, reveals that all the 59,121 children covered by the ICDS were found to be normal. In Manipur, of the 1,90,815 children covered by the scheme, 25,935 were moderately malnourished and 453 severely malnourished. In Meghalaya, there were 70,566 moderately malnourished children and 272 severely malnourished ones. In Tripura 75,381 children were found moderately malnourished and 621 severely malnourished. The figures are 11,613 and 144 respectively for Nagaland and 30,751 and 121 respectively for Mizoram.

In Assam, against a sanctioned strength of 59,695, there were only 36,849 anganwadi centres operational as on December 31, 2009. An additional 19,646 centres were set up before January 31, 2010, and 13,067 anganwadi workers were appointed for them; 2,967 mini anganwadi centres have also been opened and 2,121 anganwadi workers appointed for these. These new centres, however, are not yet fully operational. The State witnessed widespread and violent protests over alleged irregularities in the appointment of the new anganwadi workers.

In Arunachal Pradesh, all the 6,028 sanctioned anganwadi centres are operational with 1,94,578 children in the age group of six months to six years and 25,103 pregnant and lactating mothers as beneficiaries. In Manipur, 9,654 anganwadi centres are operational, against the sanctioned strength of 11,510. In Mizoram, the number of anganwadi centres matches the sanctioned strength 1,980. Nagaland was sanctioned 3,455 centres, of which 3,194 are operational. In Tripura, 7,379 centres (sanctioned strength, 9,878) were operational while in Meghalaya 3,655 were operational (sanctioned strength, 5,115) as on December 31, 2009.

A review of implementation of the ICDS in the north-eastern States revealed that Assam was lagging behind the other States. The Planning Commission, in a recent letter to the Assam government, expressed concern that there had been an increase in the level of malnutrition among children under three from 33 per cent (NFHS-2) to 40 per cent (NFHS-3) and described the situation as very disturbing. On February 17, Karin Hulshof, Representative, UNICEF India, in a speech at a State-level workshop held in Guwahati as part of the national-level review process of the Rural Sanitation and Water Supply programme, said: Assam has the fourth highest infant mortality rate in the country with 132 infants dying every day in the State. The mortality among children under five years of age is equally disturbing, with 169 of them dying every day, before they can complete five years of age.

In Assam, the beneficiaries of ICDS projects include 24,79,586 children in the age group of six months to six years and 5,75,441 pregnant and lactating mothers. After field visits to five AWCs in Assam, State Plan Adviser and Special Consultant, Planning Commission, Firoza Mehrotra, in a review of the flagship programmes, reported that the ICDS programme was not delivering in the State as it should. Firoza Mehrotra found that supply of SNP to children and pregnant and lactating mothers at these five AWCs started only between July 15 and October 15 for the year 2009-2010.

This is really distressing, especially since funds were available, Firoza Mehortra wrote. In 2007-08, only 88 per cent and in 2008-09 only 53 per cent of funds available were utilised. Attendance at the AWCs was also very low. Children who were not present were marked present and some schoolchildren (in regular school uniforms) and other non-registered children were also present at the AWC during visits, the review report of the Planning Commission said.

The sorry state of implementation of the ICDS in Assam was highlighted also in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General for 2006-07. The report revealed that supplementary nutrition was provided only for 45 to 75 days each year during 2002-07 against the prescribed norm of 300 days a year. Moreover, though 54.37 lakh children were eligible for coverage under the scheme, only a fixed annual target of 25.42 lakh were considered for coverage during 2002-07.

While fixing the target, the yearly increase in child population was not taken into account. Although 300 days of nutritional support is necessary to achieve the desired objective, the non-feeding days ranged from 225 days to 250 days.

The Social Welfare Department of Assam, in its departmental records, claims that 25 to 63 per cent of the children who were given supplementary food and weighed during the period 2002-07 attained normal nutritional status. The CAG report, however, said that such figures appeared to be fabricated, arguing that since supplementary feeding was given only for 47-75 days it could not have led to any weight gain in the children. The CAG argued that the impact of the nutrition programme could only be assessed when special nutrition was given for full 300 days.

The National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (the midday meal scheme) seeks to address two of the most pressing problems of the majority of children in India, namely, hunger and education, by (a) improving the nutritional status of children in Classes I-V in government, local body and government-aided schools and EGS and AIE centres; (b) encouraging children from disadvantaged sections to attend school more regularly and helping them concentrate on classroom activities; and (c) providing nutritional support to children in drought-affected areas during summer vacations. The Planning Commission review reveals that in the case of upper primary schoolchildren in Assam, not a single student was provided midday meals in 2007-08, and only 3.37 lakh students were given midday meals for 14 days in the whole year in 2008-09. But implementation of the scheme picked up in 2009-10.

In 2007-08 and 2008-09, primary schoolchildren were provided midday meals for 131 and 121 days respectively in Assam, whereas the number of days stipulated by the Programme Approval Board (PAB) was 217 and 206 respectively. In Assam, the noon meal includes khichri or dal, rice and vegetables or sweet kheer.

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