Anganwadis in Attappady fail to deliver

Report of Comptroller and Auditor General points to neglect by state

By M Suchitra
Published: Tuesday 09 July 2013

Kanji (watery rice), uppumavu (snack made from semolina) and green gram were all that were distributed at the anganwadis in Attappady– and that too not regularly (photo by M Suchitra)

The death of 32 babies belonging to tribal communities of Attappady, the one and only tribal development block in Kerala, in a span of seven months is an indicator of how the state treats its children and marginalised communities.

According to data with the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) office, 96 infants have died in Attappady since 2007. The actual figure could be higher as the Kurumbas, one of the three tribal communities in this block, do not seem to have figured in the list. Kurumba community is one of the five particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG) in the state. Their settlements are remote; one needs to trek kilometres to reach them. They are usually overlooked by health surveys. In spite of this, the data provided by the ITDP indicates higher number of infant deaths over the past 16 months than in previous years.
Poor supplementary nutrition

One major cause behind the high death toll is the poor performance of anganwadis, points out a report submitted by the ITDP office in April to the director of the state tribal welfare department. Attappady has 172 Anganwadis which are supposed to provide supplementary nutrition to children, pregnant women, lactating mothers and adolescent girls under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) project.

Kerala’s neglected anganwadis
  • 27-39 per cent of children malnourished
  • A shortage of 8,619 anganwadis
  • 41 per cent AWCs* do not have their own buildings. Most AWCs that have buildings are dingy
  • 85 per cent AWCs do not have electricity connection
  • 73 per cent AWCs have no drinking water facilities
  • 72 per cent AWCs do not have gas connection
  • 55 per cent AWCs do not have toilets
  • 94 per cent AWCs do not have any playground for children
  • 43 per cent AWCs do not have a separate kitchen.

*AWCs = Anganwadi centres
The ITDP officer submitted a report to the state government confirming four malnutrition deaths and indicting anganwadis for poor performance. Even after the news of infant deaths made headlines, most anganwadis continued to function poorly.

A study conducted by Cliftone D’ Rozario, advocate and advisor to Commissioners of the Supreme Court, in a case between the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the Central Government—the Right to Food case—showed that anganwadis in Attappady were lax. They had failed to provide additional nutrition, observe nutritional status and facilitate medical intervention whenever required for pregnant women and children. Most anganwadis did not even maintain any record of these activities.

Kanji (watery rice), uppumavu (snack made from semolina) and green gram were all that were distributed at anganwadis in the area – and that too not regularly.  “I had not received anything from the anganwadi while carrying my child,” says 28 -year-old Maruthi, who gave birth to a stillborn seven months ago. Maruthi is now five months pregnant. Chelli in Vellakulam settlement, whose twin babies died in April, also says she has not received food from the anganwadi in her settlement.

Discrimination against the marginalised
Anganwadi Infrastructure Dalit     Adivasi  Fishers    General
No building 51.8 41 51 45
No drinking water          79.2 67.6 64.5 data not
No electricity connection 72 87.4 85 26
No toilet                             79 56.2 50.7 35
No separate kitchen         37 48.2 42 data not

Sabala Yojna, a Central scheme for the empowerment of out-of-school adolescent girls, was launched in Attappady in 2010. Under this scheme, take-home kits with food items are supplied to girls, most of whom are underweight. However, none of the anganwadis supplied the kits.

Bindu Gopinath, child development project officer, social justice department at Attappady, was appointed in May after the infant deaths. She says anganwadis were insisting on spot feeding rather than allowing the girls to take the kits home. This was to ensure that the girls got to eat the food items meant for them. “If they take kits home there is no guarantee that they will get the food. All family members may share it,” she points out.

Irregularities in food supply

It was evident that there had been no supervision of the functioning of anganwadis for the past two years.  In 2011, the Palakkad district social welfare officer had sent two letters – one on July 22 and the other on September 29 – to the director of state social welfare department. The letters pointed out that 138 out of 172 anganwadis in Attappady were supplying rotten, expired and contaminated food items. The letters also highlighted large-scale irregularities and corruption in the supply of food items by a private agency to the anganwadis. But no action was taken. This was not surprising considering only one anganwadi supervisor had been posted in the place of nine over the last two years. The state social justice department has filled all vacancies just a few days ago.  “The situation has improved since their posting,” says Gopinath. Supervisors are still unable to visit anganwadis in the interiors as the ICDS office only has one old jeep.

When infant deaths became a huge issue, the Kerala government issued an order in May to provide milk, eggs and banana through the centres. The order asked anganwadi workers, who receive a salary of Rs 6,000 a month, to buy these supplies and then seek reimbursement from the gram panchayat.  Recently, the ITDP office issued another order asking all three gram panchayats to release funds in advance for buying milk, eggs and bananas. The government has also stopped supply from the private agency and is now procuring the food items from government-owned Maveli stores.

Poor infrastructure

Most anganwadis in Attapady lack basic amenities. Out of 172 anganwadi centres, 136 have their own buildings but only nine have drinking water facilities.

The anganwadi centre at Edavani, a remote Kurumba hamlet on a hillside in Pudur Gram Panchayat, is slightly bigger than a dog’s kennel. The bamboo shed is just large enough for cooking and storing grains. Maari, the anganwadi helper, says that food grain has to be carried all the way from Boothayar, 16 kilometres away. A person hired to carry the grain would ask for a part of food grain as labour charge. During the monsoon, the entire village is cut-off and it is difficult to transport food grain to the anganwadi. Edavani is one of 19 Kurumba settlements and is located at a much lower altitude. There are seventeen settlements located at much higher heights.

Symptom of larger apathy

Kerala’s apathy towards ICDS is not confined to Attappady alone. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India for 2011-12 tabled in the Kerala Legislative Assembly during the budget session in March this year paints a dismal picture (see box)

The report has come down heavily on the state government, pointing out that the percentage of malnourished children below the age of six years in the state ranged between 27 and 39 per cent. A test check of records in Idukki, Malappuram, Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram districts indicated that 110 out of 1,180 children who died during 2011-12 were severely malnourished.

There is a shortage of 8,619 anganwadi centres in the state. The social justice department was not preparing any long-term perspective plans. “In the absence of the plan, there were deficiencies in the creation of new anganwadi centres and insufficiencies in the delivery of services to beneficiaries in various components in ICDS,” observes the report. Many anganwadi centres were functioning in rented premises and lacked basic infrastructure facilities like safe drinking water and toilets. The report also notes that the percentage of children who were not immunized against polio and diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) in Palakkad and Malappuram districts was 36 and 31 respectively.

The pattern of budget allocation in the Kerala state budget is also a sign of state’s apathy in the matter.  ICDS expenditure as a percentage of total revenue expenditure of state is just around 0.6 percent during the entire tenth and eleventh plan period. “It needs to be seen how the increase in number of beneficiaries can be managed with a static allocation of financial resources to ICDS,” notes the report.

“In fact, the state does not have any clue about the nutritional status of 75 per cent of kids,” says P B Ajaya Kumar, executive director of RIGHTS, a Thiruvananthapuram-based non-government organisation working among adivasis, dalits and fisherfolk. A study by RIGHTS last year reveals that the state provides ICDS services only to 25.1 per cent of children below the age of six. The study also reveals the infrastructure of the anganwadi centres is dismal in general, but more pathetic in anganwadis in areas where marginalised communities live (see chart).

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