The curious case of missing children at anganwadis

The names of malnourished children are missing from the registers at several anganwadis in Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh is one of the worst-affected states as far as malnutrition is concerned
Credit: Kundan Pandey
Madhya Pradesh is one of the worst-affected states as far as malnutrition is concerned Credit: Kundan Pandey

Saheli, a two-and-half-year-old girl from Manki village in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district, was not among the malnourished children registered in the local anganwadi till April this year.

When a local anganwadi worker, Shakuntala Yadav, was asked how many malnourished children are registered at the centre, she replied “two”, a standard response here.

Following her response, volunteers checked on about 40 children in the village and found that eight of them were malnourished as per the parameters.

Saheli, who weighed approximately four kg, was immediately admitted to the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre (NRC). She was also diagnosed with tuberculosis. After 15 days of treatment, she gained three kg.

When Down To Earth (DTE) approached Yadav for the reason behind the exclusion of Saheli’s name, she failed to explain. She even blamed a sudden increase in the temperature, which led to an increase in the number of children suffering from malnutrition. This is not a negligence case. DTE visited at least 20 anganwadi centres in two districts—Panna and Chhatarpur, especially where Saur and Kondar tribes are found. These tribes are even looked down in the Gond community.

Manaur, a Saur-dominated village in Panna, had no children registered under the malnourished category. In Singaro village of Chhatarpur, Yashoda Kondar, the anganwadi worker, gave the standard reply of two. She informed that last month two children were registered under the category.

Prithavi Trust, a local non-profit, started to measure children on the existing parameters and by comparing data collected from several anganwadis. Though the trust is yet to come up with a report, community workers shared their experiences.

Pradeep Kumar Tripathi, community worker at the trust, said that three months ago he organised a meeting of village women at Gandhigram in Janakpur gram panchayat.

During the time, Rubina, aged six, came with her grandmother. She had wounds on her entire body. She was taken to the hospital where doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis and malnutrition, but her name was not mentioned as a malnourished child at the local anganwadi. When the issue appeared in a local newspaper, Tripathi was threatened over phone by unknown persons with dire consequences and told not to visit the village again.

Sharing her experience of Kalyanpur village, another volunteer, Snehlata Gangele from the same organisation, said that when she reached the village in the last week of May, she found only two children registered under the severe acute malnutrition (SAM) category and nine under moderate acute malnutrition.

But when the organisation weighed and measured 45 children of the village, 11 were found under the SAM category.

In Dhanoja village, not a single child was registered as malnourished. When Gangele and her colleagues weighed 32 children, they found five of them to be severely malnourished.

In villages like Kawar and Bhusaur in Chhatarpur, not a single child was registered as malnourished in anganwadis.

Madhya Pradesh is one of the worst-affected states as far as malnutrition is concerned. The recent National Family Health Survey 2015-16 points out that Panna has 43.1 per cent stunted children, 24.7 per cent wasted and 40.3 per cent underweight children.

Similar was the case in rural Chhatarpur where 44.4 per cent children are stunted, 17.8 per cent wasted and 41.2 per cent underweight, as per the report.

These facts highlight the weak links in India’s 2013 National Food Security Act, which identifies anganwadi centres as responsible for ensuring food and nutrition for mothers and children.

The discrepancy

Saheli’s mother Kusum said that she and her other daughter get only one meal a day, and that too regularly. They are supposed to get two meals every day, local experts said.

If they register children under the SAM category, they have to provide a third meal too, Mehrun Siddiqui, who works in a non-profit based in Khajuraho, said.

If anganwadis show more children under SAM, there will be more pressure on the workers to take them to the NRC. There will also be a question on the kind of food being provided.

If a particular anganwadi has been providing regular food to children, questions will rise as to how they have become malnourished or remained to be the same, Siddiqui said.

Anganwadi workers keep hiding information about malnourished children which saves them from work. When DTE reached Kawar village in Chhatarpur district, it found two women filling up the register and not a single child was present there.

Another important observation was that almost all anganwadis have workers from the empowered class and majority of the children are poor. Many villagers complained that anganwadi workers do not even visit the centre for as long as one week and at times for even a month.

As per the government report, there were 13.42 lakh operational anganwadis in India as on December 31, 2014. As per the schematic norms of the integrated child development scheme, anganwadi workers and helpers are honorary women workers. These centres are supposed to tackle the malnutrition prevailing among women and children at the ground level.

The story was done under Vikas Samvad Fellowship.

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