It was 9 am at an anganwadi close to Bengaluru’s city centre. Sakshayanamma opens the anganwadi, gets water from the nearby public tap and starts heating the milk in the kitchen. The children filter in one by one and at 10.30 am, she gives each child a three-quarter glass of milk. She urges the children to down their glass quickly, so the teacher can begin interacting with them. She needs to get started with preparing lunch.
Sakshayanamma is the anganwadi helper, in charge of cleaning the centre, and feeding the children. A glass of milk in the morning, and lunch in the afternoon, with an egg on special days. Tucked away in the corner of a street in Bengaluru’s Wilson Garden neighbourhood, the anganwadi has been in existence for over 30 years. Space being a premium in the city, the centre is just a tiny room which has been partitioned into two halves by a curtain. One half is used for the children to learn and play. There are colourful charts hung up all around the room describing different kinds of fruits, vegetables, vehicles, animals and birds. There are also nutrition charts.
There are 18 children in the anganwadi, and many of the children have parents working in the unorganised sector - as house helps, shop workers, labourers or drivers.
The scene is similar in Nilambur, a remote tribal hamlet in Kerala.
Nilambur is a beautiful place, dotted with brick houses with red oxide flooring, some brightly whitewashed. A narrow road between the houses leads into the colony. The anganwadi centre is a well-maintained fairly new one-storey building. It has a main hall that serves as the classroom, as well as the space where children take their afternoon nap, a small kitchen and a store room, with a toilet outside.
Anganwadi staff Thankam, 47, and Seetha, 35, are from the same tribal colony, which has over 110 households. Seetha, the worker's house is just across the anganwadi centre. This also means that when parents are in a hurry and want to send off their children to the centre before the 10 am opening time, they leave the kids at the worker's house, sometimes as early as 8 am.
The residents of Nilambur belong to the Paniyan tribe. They are employed by the forest department. The men’s work includes cutting the branches, maintaining them and providing help in cutting trees. Women normally clear the fallen branches, sort out the cut trees. There is more work during summers with the risk of forest fire. The men also collect produce from the forest and sell it outside. For women, the work is seasonal, with little work between December and February.
Children at the anganwadi in Nilambur.
At the anganwadi, children repeat the words of the song after Thankam the teacher, with Seetha enacting the words in the corner. The song is about men going to work in the forest early in the morning with a sickle. After the day’s work, they drink toddy. One child enacts a man drinking and walking unsteadily. Finally the drunk man reaches home. That’s how the song ends.
Little academic learning happens, since the kids are almost often distracted and so a systematic study plan doesn't work out. They teacher has to depend on their moods to decide whether she will teach something new or not.
After breakfast, the children are left on their own for some time. Some of them wander off home, Seetha runs after them and gets them back to the centre. She also frequently breaks up quarrels between them.
It’s getting late, Seetha goes to the kitchen. From a giant green trunk, she measures rice, cleans it and keeps in the pressure cooker along with lentils. In another vessel, she makes sambar, with potatoes and tomatoes and onion.
As she does all this, children get into a fight and Seetha has to keep aside her work to run after the children. When the squabbles don’t seem to stop, she gently whacks a boy on his hands, and he starts to cry. The rest of the children continue their play.
A little after noon, Seetha notices that the youngest of the lot has been unusually quiet. She asks him to come near her and notices that his eyes are teary. On examining him, Seetha says that the child has above normal temperature and has fever. The child's house is right next to the centre and Seetha shouts out to his mother. The woman comes out and from across the compound wall, enquires what happened. Seetha then fetches paracetamol syrup from the store room and feeds him. While she insisted that he should stay back for lunch and only later go home, the child wasn't ready. She hands over the child to his mother and asks for a plate from the house. In it, Seetha serves the boy's share of lunch and passes it on.
Lunch is usually followed by naptime. This offers the helpers time to clean up after lunch and by 3 pm, parents come to pick up the children.
Manjula, a teacher at Yarpal in Telangana, tells us about a regular day at her anganwadi.
Anganwadis across south India usually employ only two resources - a teacher and a helper, although the Bengaluru centre sees a few women voluntarily help out in the afternoons. The helper is in charge of preparing the meals.
Anganwadi teacher G Manjula weighs a child at the Yapral Anganwadi
Some centres in Andhra Pradesh follow a different system. The food for the anganwadi centres is provided by Annapurna—a government’s initiative like the Amma canteen and Indira canteen in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka respectively. The only cooking that happens at the Yapral anganwadi centre (near Secunderabad) is boiling eggs. The eggs are given to the children and pregnant women.
At Nilambur, much of Seetha’s time is spent in cooking, cleaning and feeding the kids.
Getting ready for lunch, Seetha pulls out three steel plates from the shelf and goes outside to wash them. She has placed a bucket of water outside in which she dips the plates and washes them. The kids follow her and she pours water so that they can wash their hands.
Only after the kids sit down for lunch, that Seetha opens the pressure cooker. “It’s a rule that we must not open the vessel before the children are ready to eat,” Seetha says. With a spoon, she tastes a little rice and sambar. It is mandatory for her to check the food before it is served.
The kids chat while eating while the teacher monitors them. By this time Seetha has developed a headache and sits down on a chair in the main room. She closes her eyes for some time, hoping it to go away.
The kitchen at Nilambur
When the kids are done eating, Seetha cleans the plates and mops the room. It is past 1.30 pm and it’s time for the kids to take their nap. The teacher spreads the mat and forces them to sleep, but the kids wander off. They come back and lie down for some time, but soon gets distracted.
Thankam tries to get them to sing and act out some songs, that they learned over the months, but they don’t remember the songs well enough. By then, Seetha finishes her meal and then the teacher eats while Seetha monitors the children. By 3pm, Seetha is back at the kitchen to make upma and boil water.
After the kids finishes the meal, their parents come to pick them up. After locking the centre, the teacher and Seetha goes on house visits. In these visits, they enquire about the well-being of pregnant and new mothers, ask them whether the nutrition provided by the centre is keeping them fine. On the day this reporter visited them, they visited two houses to check why the children hadn’t turned up.
The work of Anganwadi staff
Manjula talks about how they track the learning and diet of children.
The anganwadi staff are trained on how to teach and engage children. In Kerala, teachers go through a week-long annual refresher course. Every month, over two days, all anganwadi staff from across the centres in the taluk meet with the supervisor. The teacher and worker take turns as the centre is functional on those days too.
The anganwadi workers’ job is to ensure that children in the area come to the centre, get educated and get proper nutrition. Every month, the teacher checks the weights of each child; parents of underweight children are advised on what they should feed the children. A doctor also visits the Nilambur centre once in two months, says Manjula.
In addition to these work, staff also support other government schemes for pregnant women, infants and their mothers, as well as adolescent girls. For example, Karnataka, Andhra and Telangana provide nutritious lunch prepared at the anganwadi for pregnant and lactating women. The women are supposed to be served food only at the centre. However, many collect the food in containers after signing, or send someone else to pick up the lunch. “Since all the kids are poor here, they hesitate to visit the centre and eat,” Manjula explains. In Kerala, the teacher visits the home of pregnant women every Friday to check weight and other health indicators and report the status to the local health centres.
How much do anganwadi staff get paid?
Sakshayanamma is paid Rs. 4,000 every month but admits that it is not enough. The work of an Anganwadi worker has increased exponentially since the government’s push to provide nutritious hot meals in every anganwadi. “I am working at this anganwadi since 1984 and few years ago, we had to feed children bread and a glass of milk. Now that children are given meals every day, my work has increased but my salary is just Rs. 4000 now.”
Manjula in Yapral has been working as the anganwadi teacher for the last 11 years. She is a resident of the same town. She has two kids - a son and a daughter. Her salary is Rs 10,500, while the helper receives Rs 6,000. “The government had assured us of giving increment after every two years. But we have not received any such increment,” Manjula laments. The anganwadi teachers and helpers don’t receive their salary every month, instead they get once in two months, due to delay in releasing the government funds. The longest period for which they didn’t get salary was six months, which resulted in protests, forcing the government to immediately release the funds.
Manjula says that it is extremely difficult to work as an anganwadi teacher, if you solely rely on the anganwadi work. “My husband also works, so I am able to manage, else it would be impossible for me to work. For others, like single women and widows, it is very difficult.” The government gives the centres books, charts, toys and a few supplies like dish washing bar, washing powder and broom.
According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the present rate of honoraria paid to the Anganwadi workers and helpers since 2011 is Rs. 3000 and Rs.1500 per month respectively. In addition, state governments are also giving additional honorarium out of their own resources.
Anganwadis in India - Snapshot
Story compiled and edited by Meera K as a part of a Health series supported by ICFJ.