Children are generally the focus of almost all family system because they are vulnerable to many problems at least till they cross 6 years of age. Human child is one of the rare creatures in nature requiring all the help and attention from the parents till it is able to do its daily chores on its own. Imagine how helpless a human child is as soon as it is born and it is a series of trials and tribulations every second it lives. Only around the age of 1 year it is able to stand, takes another year to walk freely and the learning process starts seriously when it is 3 years old. Even at this stage it needs undivided attention of the parents till self-confident to go to school on its own. The logistics of child bearing and rearing can be awesome and most mothers do well by instinct and some guidance.
Another aspect of child rearing is the adequacy of nutrition available to the child. Quality and quantity of food consumed by a child till the age of 5 determines its brain development and physical growth. While breast feeding is insisted upon by child specialists for at least one year but preferably for two years, there are many problems connected with this desirable practice and many children start on formula milk as early as 6 months of age. If proper nutrition is neglected at this stage, stunted development of body and brain is certain to happen. A country like India cannot afford to leave behind millions of kids with improper and insufficient food from its ambit of development because of poverty and lack of accessibility to good food. It took independent India more than 25 years to realize the significance of poverty and its impact on proper development of the child born in this country and in 1975 the government started the much acclaimed Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) to provide institutional support to poor children in a substantial way.
It is true that even to day more than 47% of children in the country are malnourished according to reliable statistics acknowledged by international agencies though infant mortality has come down significantly after 35 years of operation of ICDS system. Probably the situation could have been worse if this service were not in place. Full credit must go to the government for conceptualizing the Scheme which is one of the most effective programs any where in the world, at least on paper. The Anganwadis, the very foundation of this program is a well conceived one where children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and women in the age group 15-49 years are "supposed" to find solace for all their problems. Can any country on earth has such a system that cares for these vulnerable groups all round the year? Probably not.
According to the government there is supposed to be one Anganwadi for every 1000 persons and at present 1.053 million Anganwadis are providing the services to 58.1 million children and 12.23 million pregnant women and nursing mothers across the country. What a massive operation! According to experts the number of Anganwadis needs to be increased to 1.6 million if 100% coverage is to be targeted and what prevents the government to expand the scheme is somewhat a mystery. After all billions of rupees are poured into the country's wasteful subsidy system and finding the resources must be a priority for the government if every child is to be protected from under development and multitude of diseases that ravage the infants if not cared for suitably.
Organizationally ICDS is a well structured net work with Anganwadi worker at the bottom of the service pyramid, supervised by Mukhyasevikas and managed at the top by Child Development Project Officer. The Anganwadi workers, mostly women are expected to be committed and sincere judicially spending the funds for the betterment of the children under their jurisdiction. Though they receive 4 months training to handle the job reasonably well, their service conditions are not good enough to lead a honest life with practically no job security and absence of post retirement benefits. It is not realized that people will give respect and recognition only if these Anganwadi workers are provided good service conditions and a place of honor. Government must not delay in revisiting the crucial role of more than 1.6 million workers presently working in ICDS program.
If dispassionate observers are to be believed there are two issues that confront ICDS program affecting its efficiency. While quality of service provided is often unsatisfactory, gross corruption in management is debilitating this useful scheme, which must be addressed immediately without further delay. It appears many intended beneficiaries are in the dark regarding this scheme and therefore are ignorant about their entitlement. What is needed is the involvement of local people in guiding the needy people to Anganwadis. A proactive approach on the part of the worker to establish contact with all those eligible for benefits under ICDS will further strengthen the efficacy of the program. If the local people, who are an important stakeholder in the ICDS program, do not have the information on what to get, what is available and what their legitimate rights are under the scheme, they are in no position to question the way it functions and cannot demand their rights. This is probably what is happening now and sooner some degree of transparency is insisted upon better it will be for its effectiveness.
The ICDS can educate the community about the objectives of the scheme and the benefits they can derive by cooperating with the Anganwadi programs. It is unfortunate that in these days of dominance of private sector in practically every endeavor in the country, here is an example of disaster when private parties were brought in to supply foods for serving in the Anganwadis. Many don't know that a Bal Vikas Samiti (BVS) should have mothers whose children go to anganwadis and local body representatives as members. The BVS, which is supposed to monitor procurement of ration, use of stock and supply of food to children by the anganwadis, is not properly empowered and has now been reduced to a mere rubber stamp with the introduction of a private party in the supply chain. In stead of local foods prepared and served private players are introducing processed foods of little relevance in this program. Of course Involving private parties also promotes corruption, besides compromising on the quality of food served to children.
With the rudimentary infrastructure already in place, India can increase the efficacy of this program manifold. But for this to happen the quality of Anganwadi worker must be upgraded. He or she should be the focal development of the village giving some security to the women, most of whom are generally illiterate. This is possible only if these personnel are adequately equipped with the wherewithal to instill confidence, respect and appreciation from the beneficiaries. Many Anganwadis are run from dilapidated buildings with practically no facility for doing what they are supposed to do. After all the very name of Anganwadi was derived from the traditional system of living where the typical "courtyard shelter' in the house or in the community settlement is a place of social interaction and development of kinship. Modern Anganwadis must reflect this spirit in creating the right atmosphere for cordiality, mutual respect and help besides generating a sense of sacredness associated with all activities. Probably after 35 years of past experience, time has come to reassess the impact of ICDS program as it runs to day and take appropriate action for making this institution more relevant and useful.
Instead of running under the bureaucratic control of the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, a more practical approach would be to set up a national apex body with statutory powers and annual grants from the government. Such a body must manage the program in a professional way with modern management tools. If this happens, there is a distinct possibility to rope in large industrial giants for funding and patronizing the program in different geographical areas. Also there are hundreds of NGOs, Stree Shakti Groups, Charitable organizations, Social networks and foreign aid agencies doing yeoman service to the welfare of Indian children. Government owes this to the citizens of this country in stead of continuing to run a dilapidated scheme as is being done now with bad reputation for its inefficiency and corruption.