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Shortcomings of India’s child services scheme

A new audit of India’s state-run programme to feed children has found that almost four decades after its launch, services and facilities remain totally inadequate.

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme was introduced in 1975 to support the physical, mental and social development of India’s children. Ten years ago, an audit of the ICDS revealed wide-scale failings of the scheme, which is meant to provide nutritional support, health check-ups and referrals. Such failings have meant that India has fallen further and further behind compared to its Asian neighbours in reducing rates of infant mortality and child malnutrition.
In 2010, India’s infant mortality rate was 48 per 1,000 live births, compared with a rate of just 16 in China and 18 in Sri Lanka. And in the period 2006-2010, 43% of children were underweight in India, with 16% being severely underweight. This compares with rates of 21% and 4% in Sri Lanka or even 20% and 7% in sub-Saharan Africa.

The ICDS is meant to address such poor health and nutrition indicators by providing support to pregnant and lactating mothers and children up to six years of age. Under the scheme, parents should be able to receive free help from Anganwadi centres which are set up to provide a range of services covering feeding, weighing and the monitoring of children’s health.

However, it’s clear from the most recent audit that many of the Anganwadi centres are unable to provide the range of services they are meant to offer. Over 2,700 Anganwadi centres in 13 different states were checked and reviewed by the audit. Nearly two-thirds of checked centres did not operate from their own buildings and many were run from open or only partially-covered spaces. In at least two-fifths, there were no separate areas for cooking, storing food items or for children’s indoor/outdoor activities. Poor hygiene and sanitation were also common problems, with fewer than half of the centres having toilets and a third not even having safe drinking water.

In terms of equipment, many of the centres were found not to have functional weighing machines or essential utensils for providing young children with supplementary nutrition. Even medicine kits were missing from more than a third of those checked due to the failure of state governments to spend the funds released to them. With such an alarming lack of equipment and facilities, it’s unsurprising that India’s most vulnerable mothers and children are not receiving the kind of help and support they so desperately need.

Laurinda Luffman signature