On the narrow and traffic-free roads of Kannagi Nagar, five-year-old Kumar (name changed) plays cricket with a group of boys. Most of them are older to him. As they disperse and leave for their respective homes at lunchtime, Kumar stays back, all alone. Sitting on a small bench by the side of the road, the frail boy waits for new company to play with. When asked if he is not going home for lunch, he shrugs, “Pasi ille (I am not hungry).”
The truth, however, is different — there is no good food at home. Kumar has been skipping lunch ever since the lockdown started in the city. Before the lockdown, the Anganwadi Centre (AWC) on 29th Cross Street is where he would have lunch. They would serve his favourite sambar rice with an egg or a vegetable. But the centre has had no teacher for more than three months now and remains shut.
Like every other afternoon, Kumar’s mother has to come and take him home with her. “He barely eats a morsel these days,” she says. Having lost her job as domestic help, she is penniless. “Most days, I just cook rice and rasam, which he doesn’t like. I cannot afford to provide eggs, pulses and vegetables like the AWCs do,” she says, in a helpless tone.
‘I miss Tomato Rice from school’
Another Class 10 student of the Government High School in Ennore, Surendar K is also unhappy and barely finishes his meals. Rice, rasam and kara kuzhambu (curry made with onions and tamarind) is what constitutes the regular menu at home. Now that his mother, the sole breadwinner, has lost her job due to COVID-19, the family struggles to buy even a few kilos of rice.
“I miss the tomato rice from school,” says Surendar in a deadpan voice; he sleeps hungry most of the nights now. Thousands of kids from poor families like Surendar miss the healthy food they used to receive under the mid-day meal scheme.
A total of 48.6% of children aged between 6 – 59 months in urban Tamil Nadu are anaemic. Among children below five years, 25.5% are stunted and 21.5% are underweight. These statistics from the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 exposed the harsh truth of malnutrition in urban pockets of Tamil Nadu, including Chennai, even during pre-COVID times.
“The statistics revealed a dismal situation, even when the AWCs and mid-day meals were operational. The closure of the centres for three months will now make it worse, creating a drastic effect on poor children,” says Andrew Sesuraj, Co-ordinator, Loyola College Hub for Excellence in Child Protection.
Malnutrition: The unseen fallout of the pandemic
Kumar’s and Surendar’s tales are similar to that of thousands of kids among Chennai’s urban poor. AWCs and mid-day meal schemes play a key role in the nutrition and physical development of these children; they are the only way for these kids to get their eggs, leafy vegetables and pulses. But as these centres and government schools providing mid-day meals are shut due to the lockdown, poor kids have been deprived of the nutrition they need for months now.
Rice with vegetables or spinach, eggs, chana dal, soya beans formed the staple menu in AWCs and schools providing mid-day meals. AWCs that focus on the early development of children also provide sathu maavu (health mix) and a fibre rich snack, while mid-day meals play a major role in the health of teenage children such as Surendar.
“AWCs provide lunch that constitutes rice, vegetables and pulses. They also provide snacks (such as eggs or kozhukattai) when the children disperse from the centres at 3.30 pm,” said Nundiyny A D of IRCDUC. “Even though the taste and finer quality of food at most AWCs is questionable, it has helped poor children get their daily dose of protein and multivitamins,” she added.
Falling through the cracks
Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) are also the primary, and often only, source of nutrition for around 54% of homeless children between 2 to 5 years in Chennai, according to a study conducted by Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) in October 2018. This underlines the fact that more than half of the city’s homeless children are also staring at an alarming health crisis.
But the proportions of the crisis are actually even larger. Anganwadi centres are accessible to poor children living in slums and resettlement colonies, but the scheme leaves out a crucial section of the most deserving population — the homeless children, 46% of whom do not go to AWCs.
Sarasa K is one of the 40-odd families that have made NSC Bose Road, Parry’s Corner their home. None of Sarasa’s six grandchildren went to an AWC. Reason: there were none in the vicinity. “The presence of Anganwadi centres are non-uniform. There are very few centres in the highly commercial localities of the city such as Parry’s Corner and Broadway,” says Vanessa Peter, a social activist.
Sarasa’s business is seasonal, she sells mangoes during May, Ganesha idols in August and September and so on. Sometimes, the odd motorist or passer-by doles out some money or buys the children a snack, otherwise they have to get by with whatever meagre amounts Sarasa manages to earn.
“I make sure the kids fill their stomach, but I cannot feed them anything beyond rice, rasam and buttermilk,” says Sarasa, who has been jobless the past three months. The family has been surviving mainly on dry rations provided by organisations. In short, the platter of Sarasa’s grandchildren hardly have any nutritional value these days.
Social workers point out that the social welfare department should take cognizance of these challenges and act to ensure that these homeless kids don’t grow up to be weak and disease-prone in a post COVID world.
The loss of nutrition for three months has already caused damage to the growth of children, say doctors. However, it is never too late for the state government to adopt socially conscious measures. AWC workers should distribute rice, health mix and pulses to the families of the children, as has been purportedly done in Kerala. Anganwadi centre staff in Kerala went to the houses of children to supply the nutrition-based food.
An Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) officer from SriPerumbudur said, “AWCs always have a stock of dry rations. We are meticulously supplying them to the families.” However, the ground reality contradicts the officer’s statements.
A majority of AWC workers are enrolled for COVID-19 duty — to disinfect public places and conduct door-to-door screening. Sheela, a worker, says, “The supply cannot be done methodically enough because of two reasons. One, we are caught up in COVID duty and secondly, some workers have gone back to their native places.”
Space constraint is the biggest problem for the non-presence of Anganwadi centres in commercial pockets of Chennai such as Parry’s Corner. When the COVID-19 crisis is over, Greater Chennai Corporation should identify and allocate resources for setting up mobile Anganwadi Centres in the localities with space constraints. That way, many parents such as Sarasa would be able to send her children to these child care facilities.