There are several instances of Anganwadi Workers (AWW) going beyond their designated roles to help the distressed children and women. In majority of the disadvantaged families, both the parents have to go out for work leaving behind young children at home. At home are the older child and younger siblings, surviving on Bhakri (Roti of Jowar or rice) and thin dal. It’s not unusual to find a 4-year-old child taking care of a 6 month old baby in an Adiwasi Pada (hamlet).
“I got the younger sibling of the older child who is my student to my Anganwadi Centre (AWC). Although the younger child is below three, we looked after her and fed her. If I had decided to not intervene, both the children would have gone without proper nutrition and care. It’s not possible for the older child to take care of the younger sibling at home. It’s too much to ask for from a five- year old. This is the reality of the children of parents who are daily wage workers and we have been entrusted with the responsibility of providing them with proper nutrition and care. Hence we have to be proactive and we also need to reach out to the younger children (below 3),” shares Nalini Raut, AWW of the Rawalpada AWC in Palghar District.
Although Palghar is a tribal district, it has thriving non- tribal blocks and urban centres like Vasai, Virar, Boisar and Palghar. Anganwadi Centres from both the regions have to deal with malnutrition of two kinds; one arising out of insufficient nourishment and the other due to junk food. Junk food is literally engineered to make you eat, overeat and want more of it often.
Children whether Adiwasi or non Adiwasi, eat a lot of junk, especially potato wafers. Daily wage earning mothers don’t have sufficient time to cook elaborate meal and snacks for the child. All she’s able to make is Bhakri and dal as she has accomplish several other chores before rushing for work. She finds it easier to hand over some cash to the child. Children as young as two and three-year-old buy glucose biscuits and chips from a nearby shop.
“After having wafers, children feel thirsty and they drink a lot of water. For the next two to three hours they don’t feel hungry. Even though their stomach is not full, they don’t get pangs of hunger, that’s what the junk food does to children – it numbs their hunger. During our parents’ meet, we stress on the ill-effects of junk food and the health hazards it brings. Biscuits, wafers, chips and instant noodles are addictive. Previously, some children used to bring biscuits and potato wafers to AWC and some in fact used to get cash for buying ‘khau’ (titbits). We slowly changed children’s dietary habits. We asked the children to keep the tiffin away and have the meal prepared at the AWC with everyone. That’s the rule.”
After years of campaigns against fast food, change is slowly taking place. You don’t often see children getting junk food to AWC. “We also hold meetings with adolescent girls and boys. Normally girls open up, but boys don’t speak, they feel shy to share anything at all. All of them eat Chinese bhel, there are number of stalls selling fast food near the schools and colleges. It’s easier to change eating habits of the young children than that of the adolescents. We have no control over them. We can only make them aware but what they eat is beyond us.”
During their meetings, school girls and boys tried to explain that they are not able to eat healthy food as they find junk food tempting. A 13- year-old boy said that they do not want to eat ‘healthy food’ as it tastes bland.
Parents shared that when they insist, they start crying. Another parent who is a daily wage earner said, “I have to wake up at 4 am. I sweep, cook and get ready for work. My children don’t like what I cook. I hand over some cash to them so that they can eat whatever they want.”
Fight against Junk Food
In India, national and state governments implemented a multi-pronged strategy to support nutrition including large-scale programmes, effective capacity-building initiatives, strong partnerships, community-based action, and communications campaigns.
AWWs have fostered partnerships with village community, Gram Panchayat (GP) and beyond. She is a member of the Poshan, Water and Sanitation committees constituted by the village Panchayat. For many of their activities, AWWs have to seek help from GP and community and ensure their participation.
AWWs of Palghar proclaim that majority of GPs have become pro-active after their intervention. “We hold so many programmes in the village and at times we address the Gram Sabha on issues pertaining to Poshan. The Sarpanch overlooks the functioning of the AWC and makes visits to take stock of things. The ex AWC children come back as successful professionals and express their wish to help. We also get calls from the affluent families whose children do not attend the AWC. They express wish to help the centres in some way. Such families choose to celebrate their children’s birthday at the centre,” shares Chhaya Bhoir from Mapkhop AWC.
Many families, who either don’t have children or have grown-up children, have expressed their interest in contributing to the centre’s activities. On certain occasions, as per Abida Tamboli, AWW of Bhutalman, support from private sector has also been received by her centre. “One of the private companies working in the GP territory, helped organize a lunch gathering for all the villagers. After the lunch, they also offered to repair and paint the AWC,” shared Abida who believes that help is coming from all the quarters – be it GP, villagers or the private sector. The centres have improved, the children have become smart, smarter than those attending private pre-school for sure. Abida’s proclamation is not totally off the mark.