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Dealing with malnourishment: MPs willing to learn

© UNICEF/India/2007
Congress MP Sachin Pilot, debating over possible solutions to improve the state of an Aanganwadi in Gwalior

By Rama Srinivasan

On 28th March, the Gwalior district administration officials broke into a sweat that had nothing to do with the scorching heat. They hadn’t counted on the members of Citizen’s Alliance, which included five members of parliament (MPs) from different parties, to stop at a random village on the highway and investigate the state of its Aanganwadi and the working of the ICDS.

The group comprising of Sachin Pilot, MP belonging to the Congress, Supriya Sule from the NCP, Shahnawaz Hussain from the BJP, Jay Panda from BJD and Prema Cariappa, MP who is the Convenor of the Parliamentary Forum of Children, ghazal singer Penaz Masani, actor Gauri Karnik and journalist Neerja Chowdhury – stopped by at Neemchandwa to assess the ground realities.

Children here need to walk for at least 25 minutes to reach the Anganwadi. Pilot took the lead in walking up the dusty track to this Anganwadi Centre even as officials of the district administration and Ministry of the Women and Child Welfare followed.

They had reason to worry. The Aanganwadi centre had a big padlock on the door, at a time it should normally have been open. The “sahayika” to the Anganwadi worker was summoned. About four sacks of food lay locked inside the small room, while the children of the village were apparently busy working in sugarcane fields. They get food only around three days a week, not cooked ‘daliya’ but dry ‘kurkure’(soya puffs).

The Anganwadi centre, the group found, had stopped updating registers of children since September 2006 with no account of the children’s weight while no vaccinations have taken place for a year. The centre was also supposed to feed and vaccinate pregnant women and ensure their good health, but the women said no one had come for “a long time”.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of malnourished children and they total 60% of all children. The number of “severely malnourished” children, according to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) are around 78,000.

According to Sachin Pilot, it was the shocking figures in the NFHS-3 that led this one-of-its-kind group to come together. The MPs decided to study why the systems like the ICDS and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, were not showing results.

“The objective is not to indulge in any blame-game or confrontation. Diseases like polio have been taken up seriously and tackled. But since there is no physical manifestation of malnourishment in the age-group of zero to five, this problem has not been taken up in quite the same way. We have to take it up now on a war-footing,” Pilot said.

© UNICEF/India/2007
BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain and singer Penaz Masani(R) assess the ground realities of Neemchandwa

Their aim, the young MPs said, was to understand the ground realities, and as representatives of different parties, raise the issue in a unified voice in and outside Parliament.

If the convoy took Neemchandwa by surprise, the preparations at Rampura and Patai in turn surprised the visitors from Delhi. The women and children in both places, alerted about the impending visit, had gathered under the tree to meet the visitors. A close look at the register in the Anganwadi Centre showed that out of 102 children in Rampura, 96 were malnourished. The gathered women complained about the small quantities of food given to their children in the anganwadi centre in addition to the lack of water and the dismal condition of the houses in the village

In  Patai village, a comparatively prosperous village, the Public Health Centre, had been freshly painted with clean white sheets on the bed. The doctor, the residents told the visiting group, had shown up that day “after a month”.

The women complained that their children hardly ever received food from the Aanganwadi. Anita, a young mother, complained about the caretaker, Chandralekha, who refuses to release food and her daughter has received no vaccination. While Anita’s family has been able to ensure the infant’s good health, Lajwanti has not had such luck. She complained that her two-year-old son, Rahul, was always ill, though she didn’t know the meaning of the word “malnourishment”.

The multi party group of young MPs was at pains to point out that they had not come to the area to be critical but to try and make a difference.  As Biju Janata Dal MP, Jay Panda, put it, “We noticed a problem of attendance, efficiency and commitment.” Later in Gwalior, they met with the District Collector and brought all that they had seen to his attention.

Pilot, Panda and Sule debated over the possible solutions, which include the outsourcing of mid-day meal schemes to self-help groups and NGOs. While Panda cautioned against it, given Orissa’s experience with the experiment, Sule pointed out how it had been carried out successfully in Kohlapur in Maharashatra. The group now plans to visit Orissa and Maharashtra in the coming months.



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