The aroma of sambar rice and the chorus of children reciting Tamil words have been missing from the anganwadi centres in the foothills of Anaikatti in Coimbatore for the last six months since the lockdown came into force.
Preschool children, who were engaged by anganwadi workers and given nutritious meals, would have missed all that, but for the workers who now go to their houses and deliver raw rice and a variety of dals once every 15 days instead of the cooked food.
“If it was not for the food grains supplied through the anganwadi centres here, we would have died of starvation in the lockdown days,” says S Nanjan, a resident of Thoombanur tribal hamlet in the district.
“Despite our houses being located a little interior in the foothills of Western Ghats, the anganwadi teachers took the effort to reach us and supply the food grains,” Nanjan says with gratitude.
Thousands of families across the state whose children were given nutritious midday meals at school, but had to lose out on them due to the pandemic lockdown, received raw supplies through the anganwadi centres.
Unlike the lakhs of families confined in their houses, anganwadi teachers and staff could not stay behind their doors as they were tasked with multiple responsibilities, especially distribution of nutritious meals to the kids.
“We do not have any other choice. Although we know the risk of getting (COVID) by getting in touch with each other, we decided to step out, risking not just ourselves but our families as well,” says Alamelu Mangai, an anganwadi teacher in Coimbatore.
Creating COVID awareness
In Karnataka, with the government announcing indefinite shutdown of anganwadi centres, the state which initially planned to cook food and supply to kids, within weeks of lockdown, started supplying raw ration kits, including milk powder, eggs, rice, and lentils (powder/raw), required for a month to nearly 35 lakh students. The supplies were either door-delivered or the parents were asked to go and collect at the anganwadi centres once or twice a month.
Besides this, the teachers were also asked to disseminate information related to COVID, how to engage kids during the lockdown, help citizens with Aadhaar, Voter ID and other government related document registration processes.
Nethravathi, mother of a three-year-old, says the anganwadi school in Hasanagi tribal village in Yellapur district of Karnataka, has been delivering eight eggs, 1.6 kg of rice, 600 grams of milk powder, jaggery, ragi, and dal as part of the kit for the child.
Nethravathi says so far the supply hasn’t been disrupted.
In some towns, the government gave nutritional supplement powder (a mixture of lentils) instead of giving raw grocery supply.
Anganwadi teacher Channa Basamma in Chathalli, Yadgir district says, they conducted a survey soon after the lockdown and realised that there were 150 students in their limits. Now, Basamma and her helper deliver it to the doorstep of the kids, who otherwise would have visited the anganwadis.
“While delivering the kits, we also educate the parents about COVID safety measures,” Basamma says.
Unlike the normal days, the food grains were kept in a common place, from where anganwadi workers from about 10-20 centres would collect them.
“After collecting the grains, we have to pack them, weigh them and then, carry it to the kids’ houses,” shares Mangai.
As per the guidelines, each child should be given 80 gram of rice, 10 gram of dal and 20 gram of peanuts per day.
Some anganwadi workers even trekked into the forest to reach tribal kids.
“Even on normal days, there would be no transportation to those villages in the hills,” says R Lurthumary, an anganwadi teacher at Mannunguli in Erode district, explaining how much more difficult it was in the lockdown.
“I have to trek the forest route to reach the village, encountering elephants and other wild animals on the waay,” she says.
Since transportation was staggered during the lockdown, teachers alleged that there was also a shortage of food grains in the last couple of months.
“We do not know the reason. But we have to update the dashboard after supplying food grains to the children. And if we do not supply the food grains during the stipulated time period, we are answerable,” says Lurthumary.
So, the anganwadi teacher would purchase food grains using her friends’ ration cards and then supply them to the children. “Once the stock comes, we would return the food grains to the concerned card holders,” she says.
Some teachers volunteered to purchase grains using their own money.
“We do not mind doing it for the children. If we delay supplying the food grains, there is a nagging feeling that the children would be left in hunger. So, if we could not do anything officially, we would spend from our pockets to purchase the goods for a 15-day cycle,” says another anganwadi teacher in Erode, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Poor pay hassles
As the Centre and the state governments have been lifting lockdown restrictions on everything from malls to industries to luxury hotels, anganwadi centres remain shut everywhere, except in Chhattisgarh.
These centres were formed to provide basic healthcare facilities, childcare, maternal care and preschool activities. As of November 2019, there are about 13.2 lakh Anganwadi workers and 11.82 lakh helpers in 14 lakh Anganwadi centres.
Since the pandemic struck, many of them have been deputed for COVID duties.
“We have been deputed for every possible work, right from door-to-door check up, fever clinics, to cook at COVID-19 wards at government hospitals and as watch-women at COVID-19 wards,” says Daisy, state president of anganwadi workers association.
In Telangana, the anganwadi workers have also been asked to assess the psychological impact of lockdown on women, children and the aged.
Despite doing all these amid the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, they get a paltry pay that doesn’t take into consideration their experience or efforts, they say.
“After working tirelessly for days together and risking our lives, I get a pay of ₹13,800 per month,” says Stella, an anganwadi worker who has been working for about 30 years.
The salaries and honoraria of anganwadi workers are shared between the Centre and state governments. On an average, anganwadi workers in most states get about ₹8,000 as salary and ₹4,500 honorarium while helpers get about ₹5,000 as salary and ₹2,250 as honorarium.
Despite the clamour for raising their wages, the government has refused to do so, saying they are volunteers doing part-time work and cannot be treated on par with government employees.
Anganwadi workers have staged protests demanding job regularisation too, but apart from being lathi-charged and detained by police, and some praise by politicians, their demands have fallen on deaf ears.
Stella however doesn’t mind serving children despite the poor pay. “All our complaints vanish the moment we see the kids smile. We are waiting for the day to open the anganwadi centre to serve the kids and see their smiling faces,” Stella adds.
(With inputs from Prabhu Mallikarjunan)