ICDS: no child’s play this

In Salboni, child development services is a bit of a joke in the absence of proper funds and monitoring, coupled with infrastructure deficit and official apathy

pujab

Puja Bhattacharjee | March 9, 2013


With most ICDS centres devoid of their own buildings, classes are held this way — under the open sky.
With most ICDS centres devoid of their own buildings, classes are held this way — under the open sky.

Early one February morning, Rashida Bibi, an employee of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) sat with a handful of children outside the ICDS centre in Sayedpur 2. The ration to cook the meal for the children at the anganwadi centre, Rashida explained, had depleted a week ago, leading to fewer children coming to the centre.

“I have informed the ICDS office of the situation. The supervisor told me that the shipment has been released and will reach in a few days,” she said.

The ICDS department sends rice, pulses, cooking oil and salt to the centres, which the staff says lasts two to three months. The ICDS workers said they pay for spices and vegetables from their own pocket and are reimbursed the following month.

While the ICDS centre number 55 at Sayedpur was deserted inside, children could be seen playing around the periphery. Fatema Begum, the cook, said the children were let off as the teacher, Sita Mahato, had gone looking for cooking fuel. “It is impossible to leave the children on their own while I am busy cooking,” she said.

Trudging in a little later after an unsuccessful search for cooking fuel, Sita Mahato said, “I used to have two malnourished children till December but right now every child is healthy. Begum added, “The food is never wasted — the excess is given to children a little older.”

At ICDS number 337 in Sundra khalpar-2, Sarada Mahato said they ran out of food supply nearly 20 days ago but were yet to get refill. “The ICDS department told me that the food will reach soon,” Sarada Mahato said, though it was yet arrive nearly three weeks on.
Meanwhile, eight or nine of the 28 children enrolled at the centre come regularly, Sarada said.

Asked about the food supply, an official (name withheld on request since the official is not authorised to speak with the media) said ration is distributed every two months. “We have a supply of buffer stock to ensure there is no dry period. The supervisor prepares requisition for the ration requirements (of each ICDS centre), which is consolidated and sent to the district ration department,” he said. “Ration is delivered according to requirement and strength of each centre.”

Problems of sourcing
Explaining that gathering wood for cooking is a “big challenge”, Sarada Mahato said, “Wood is very costly and we are reimbursed only a month later. At times, it is financially inconvenient (for the staff to pay for it). Unlike vegetables and spices, we cannot take wood and pay later — the payment has to be made immediately.

“At times, we have to make do with wood powder and leftovers at the local wood factory.”

ICDS worker Arati Singh said sourcing cooking fuel is a “real headache”. “We have been instructed to buy wood according to strength. But when the price of wood goes up, we have to pay from our own pocket,” Singh said.

Stressing that “our hands are tied,” the official said, “The rate of wood for use as fuel is fixed by the government. ICDS workers are responsible for running the centre smoothly. So, would they stop cooking at home for a day because no wood is available? It all boils down to the eagerness to work properly.”
Most ICDS centers in Salboni, expected to add coloured vegetables to the khichdi they make, add only potato, soya bean and cabbage in the name of that ‘colour’. “We cannot store pumpkins (for long) as they rot easily. The vegetable vendor promised to bring some fresh vegetables this morning but hasn’t shown up yet,” an ICDS worker said.

But “it is not the workers’ fault,” an official said. “At present the price of vegetables is fixed at an abnormally low 34 paise (per student per day). The price of the ration supplied to them varies from time to time, and the price of vegetables is fixed accordingly.”

The official who spoke with us on condition of anonymity agreed that community participation is an integral part of running an ICDS. Vegetables, they said, can be sourced from local farmers through community participation. They also said that the workers get hardly any recognition for the hard work involved. “They will be enthused to do more if they are acknowledged for the work they are doing,” an official explained.

Problems of infrastructure
Not a soul was in sight at 8.30 on a Monday morning at the Rajbandh ICDS, when classes should ideally have started by 8 am. ICDS worker Jamuna Mahato hurried to the centre on learning about Governance Now’s presence on the premises, and the centre was up and running within minutes — and with a decent attendance to boot.

“It is too cold — I come by 7 am but no child arrives before 8 am,” Jamuna said, when asked why the classes weren’t on time.
To address this very problem supervisors are supposed to make random visits, ensuring that the workers are doing their job properly. But there are only six supervisors for entire Salboni district at present instead of the sanctioned 17. Proper monitoring, therefore, is hardly possible, officials reasoned.
With many ICDS centres across Salboni yet to have their own buildings, classes are held in some local villager’s house. But that, too, is a problem at centres with a large number of children, as ICDS workers find it challenging to accommodate the children.

Gowaldihi’s ICDS centre number 222 is one such: it has no building yet, and classes are held in the house of ICDS worker Malati Mahato. It is a tiny one-room accommodation, and the only room is used to store food items for children. Classes, meanwhile, are held under open sky, and shifted to a makeshift tarpaulin shelter when it pours, said Sushama Singh, a sahayika (assistant).

Malati Mahato, the ICDS worker whose house was the cynosure of all this attention was, however, nowhere in sight. Singh said she had gone to get eggs. A local resident, Namita Mahato, who had come to drop off her daughter at the centre, said, “I come here every morning (but) rarely see the teacher.”
She left the child with Singh.

A little distance away, at Sundra, ICDS number 337 faces a similar problem: without a building, the staff are forced to hold their classes in the shishu shiksha kendra. “The ICDS department wanted locals to contribute land to build the centre. And though a spot was even decided, the location would have been near the river. So many people objected — they felt they won’t be able to frequent the river bank (once the ICDS building is raised there) since the area would be cordoned off,” said Sayed Mukhtar Ali, a resident of Sayedpur.

Meanwhile, Karnagarh Dudepara’s ICDS (number 163) has only room to store food grain and conduct the classes. Though slightly lucky than others, Aparna Patra, the ICDS worker at the centre, said, it has its own share of woes. “We need cement floors to prevent water seepage, which spoils the ration,” she explained. “The exoskeleton of the centre is in very bad shape and parts are damaged. The beams need to be reinforced.
“The panchayat office has, however, said repairs cannot be carried out due to lack of funds.”

She said the tin roof was replaced with an asbestos one eight months ago. “And funds were insufficient to carry out other repair works even then,” Patra added.

Problems of open kitchen
Rashida Bibi said the whole area is flooded during monsoon, forcing children to stay off the centre. “I have spent Rs 100 to trim the bushes and the ICDS department had told me that they will make a proper road,” Rashida said. “But nothing has been done till now. I have even submitted an application for a shaded kitchen and a water source. But I was told that to wait for funds to arrive.”

Absence of shaded kitchens is a problem faced by most ICDS centres. At Pathor kumkumi’s ICDS centre (number 126 in Salboni) sahayika Nirmala Mahato said she has to request locals to accommodate her in their kitchen during the monsoon.

“We have no source drinking water even. Officials come here to inspect and go away but no action is ever taken,” Archana Bhuniya, an ICDS worker there, said.

What officials say
According to officials, the ICDS department has no funds available. So if there is a defunct tubewell or requirement of a water source, ICDS workers first have to approach the panchayat. If that does not work out, the BDO is contacted.

Funds from backward region grant fund (BRGF), integrated action plan (IAP) and Paschimanchal Unnayan Parshad (PUP) funds are utilised for anganwadi centres, they said.

Told about the complaints, Jayanta Biswas, the block development officer (BDO) at Salboni, said: “Funds from Integrated Action Plan (IAP) can be utilised at the BDO’s discretion. Planning is being done in such a way that all centres will have their own buildings within three years. We are waiting for details from the land department on availability of land and will start work once adequate funds are available.”

Emphasising that nearly 20 ICDS centres were constructed from IAP funds last year, Biswas said: “The panchayats have limited supply of funds (and thus) 90 percent of all repairing work is carried out by the BDO office. Drinking water and toilet provisions can be made through supplementary schemes. Right now we have a model estimate of Rs 6.40 lakh.”


 

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