Saving India’s children

Sarojitha Arokiaraj | Updated on January 20, 2018

Eggs-tra energy: The midday meal scheme is run by anganwadi workers even during the summer vacation GN Rao   -  THE HINDU

Anganwadis have been protecting children from the severest droughts. They must be expanded and empowered

Little boys and girls sit in a crude circle on the cement floor of the room after washing their hands. The room is hot and humid, the sun is blazing. The children look expectantly at their anganwadi teacher as she places a shiny steel plate in front of each one. Hot rice and vegetable curry is served, and the kids immediately dive into their plates.

“Children come here every day, as they get food regularly in the anganwadi. They are given an egg four days a week, and rice and vegetable curry on other days. There has not been any shortage in supply so far, even during the drought months,” says the anganwadi worker in Mopadu Ambedkar Nagar in Andhra Pradesh’s Prakasam district.

Prakasam district is one of the worst-affected by drought. However, anganwadis and schools are proving to be a food fortress that the drought finds difficult to breach, across scores of villages in rural India.

The worst-hit

The effect of disasters on children lasts longer and is more severe compared to adults. Inadequate access and availability of nutritious food means children go to bed hungry and are susceptible to major health risks. Young mothers are deprived of giving the best start to their babies. A study in rural India has shown that when pregnant women are exposed to drought, there are detrimental effects on the nutritional status of children, especially those from lower caste groups, and children exposed in the first trimester.

One of the biggest success stories of the country is the midday meals scheme.. A Supreme Court order dated April 20, 2004, makes it mandatory to provide midday meals during summer vacations in ‘drought-affected areas’. Many among India’s 1.3 million anganwadis and 1.16 million schools are fighting the drought, making sure that children get food and water even during the harshest months.

Cushioning it

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Mid Day Meal (MDM) scheme have turned out to be important buffers. Further, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines on management of drought (2010), the manual of drought management brought out by the ministry of agriculture (2009) and the Drought Crisis Management plan also have set clear plans to expand the ICDS and MDM scheme to cover children not enrolled and children out of school.

But the functionality of ICDS centres differs vastly. For instance, in drought-hit Bundelkhand (which is divided between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh), cooked food is not provided in many of the centres, and the supply of supplementary nutrition ( sattu) is irregular. There are no anganwadi workers in many locations, and the attendance levels of children are dismal.

This needs to be viewed against the fact that India has not been a spectacular performer when it comes to child health. According to the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC), more than 40 per cent of rural Indian children are stunted and more than 30 per cent, underweight, which is actually an improvement on the numbers given by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). In a drought context, the risk of undoing the good work done is extremely high, as the rates of under-nutrition in many of the affected States are already above the national average.

Considering that under-nutrition directly correlates to ill-health and consequent medical costs, it is obvious that the poor will end up spending more from their already-sapped wallets. Out-of-pocket expenditure for health pushes 63 million Indians below the poverty line. In drought conditions, this can get families into a cycle of debt and leave them without even the little money they earn. ICDS and MDM double up as a barrier from the vicious cycle of poverty as well.

Ramp it up

As the impact of drought on children get more severe every passing year, the government needs to ensure that the nutritional and hunger needs of children, and pregnant and lactating mothers are met. As suggested by evidence, special focus must be on their nutritional needs during the first 1,000 days.

Anganwadi centres are the single most important point of prevention of hunger and malnutrition, and the only safeguard for children during drought, and merit an expansion of provisions in anganwadi centres, including financial and human resources, and uninterrupted food supply.

It is imperative that the impact of drought be taken note of, and acted upon. Unless political will, bureaucratic efficiency and grassroots implementation gather momentum in the right direction, India’s future generations will continue to suffer.

The writer handles policy research at World Vision India

Published on May 17, 2016

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