Helping strengthen government preschool centres
As readers of the e-newsletter will know, Seva Mandir runs about 260 Balwadis (preschool centres) which keep children safe so that their mothers and older siblings can work or attend school, and it offers these children a stimulating programme of activities, as well as nutritious meals and health checks. The government also runs preschool centres, known as Anganwadis, in many villages, but they have not been functioning in line with its objectives. The NGO had the opportunity to use what it has learned from its preschool programme to strengthen the government Anganwadis. This article describes this new experiment.
Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL), an Udaipur-based mining company, entered into an MOU with the Government of Rajasthan to support more than 3,000 Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres in five districts of Rajasthan. They chose to work on improving the preschool component of the ICDS’s Anganwadis. Their other areas of engagement included strengthening community involvement, filling the supply gap and improving the health and nutrition of the children attending the centres. HZL partnered with five NGOs to work in each of the five districts. Seva Mandir was the partner in Udaipur district. Earlier this year we started work with 575 government Anganwadis in Udaipur district. The aim is to improve the health and well-being of children below six years of age. The project involves interventions in four areas: Preschool Education, Health and Hygiene, Community Involvement and Monitoring.
What we found and how we have helped improve Anganwadis
Between April and September this year the Seva Mandir team regularly monitored 575 Anganwadis (AWs), adopting a firm but sympathetic approach, and offering support to those running the AWs. As a result, the AW workers have begun to realize that their centres can do more than just open their doors to children. We have also worked with local communities and encouraged them to become increasingly involved in their AWs, which have benefited as a result.
Some of the key observations are as follows:
- Whereas in the December 2015 study the AWs in one block were found to be open only 50% of the time, by May of this year the AWs studied were open 83% of the time, improving to 99% by September. The government department deserves credit for this.
- The other big change has been in staff attendance: in May 30% of AWs had both workers (Anganwadi worker and Sahayika or assistant) present and this rose to 57% in September, again as a result of the government’s focus on the problem.
- Children’s attendance, however, needs attention. Around half the AWs have fewer than ten children present (48% in May, 58% in September). Average attendance stands at nine.
- Nutrition and hygiene: in quite a few AWs, noticeable changes have been seen in the handling and distribution of food. With advice from our team, several AWs have started seating their children properly at meal times, and serving their food on plates as opposed to inappropriate containers. This change was seen in 240 centres in September.
- Nutrition is a big concern in AWs. There is unevenness in the supply of ready-to-eat food (roasted whole gram and puffed rice). Dal (pulses/lentils), the only source of protein, is almost non-existent in the diet provided to children at AWs due to its high cost.
- Infrastructure at AWs is also a matter of concern. The condition of 261 AW buildings is poor. These centres need immediate attention (eg for damaged roofs, uneven floors, broken windows and doors). Only 78 AWs have toilets, of which only 24 have water. In the coming months, Seva Mandir will carry out infrastructure improvement work in 15 AWs and encourage communities and panchayats (village-level elected government bodies) to offer support wherever possible.
- Supplies are also a real problem. Seva Mandir conducted a survey to assess supply gaps in the 575 AWs. Items assessed included utensils for preparing food, cookers (available at 0.01% of AWs), plates and spoons for the children, water pots (found at 72%, but only 0.02% had filters), mats for the children to sit on, toys (at only 31% of AWs), drawing books (59%), slates, books, colouring material. Based on the survey, utensils for eating and cooking, mats, improved cookstoves and weighing scales were procured and supplied to the AWs. In the coming months, educational material and health and hygiene kits will also be supplied to all AWs.
- There were no preschool activities observed in AWs, and there was no age-appropriate education material for children. Through regular visits and support, our team has helped create an environment of activity in the AWs. In September, the AW workers in 280 AWs were observed carrying out activities with children, such as reciting a poem with actions, story-telling, doing activities to promote children’s development etc.
- Several of the centres are now much neater and cleaner, and hygiene, (eg hand washing) has improved in 300 AWs.
The communities had hitherto shown very little interest in the government’s AWs and therefore had not provided much support. Thanks to its regular engagement with communities through mothers and community meetings, Seva Mandir has been able to bring the communities closer to AWs and build their stake in the improvement of these centres.
There has been a gradual increase in community visits to AWs. In the month of June 11 AWs were visited by their communities, rising to 71 in July and 132 in September. This includes visits by mothers, community leaders and panchayat representatives. Efforts are being made to motivate communities to make at least one visit to each AW.
Community building fence around Anganwadi
At 35 AWs communities have helped in improving and cleaning the facility, at five AWs they have helped improve enrolment and attendance, and at 13 AWs they have generated proposals for government support. Examples of community support include cleaning the roof of two AWs where water was accumulating and then leaking into the building when it rained; cleaning an AW which was very dirty with dead bats found in the centre; completing an unfinished building to allow an AW to move out of the health centre whose premises it had been sharing.
Interface with government ICDS department
Seva Mandir is working closely with the government’s ICDS department. Regular meetings have been held with the ICDS at district, block and sector levels, and the project team regularly participated in sector meetings (involving 25-30 AWs) and shared experiences and concerns. As a result, the ICDS department has provided regular support to Seva Mandir in carrying out its work in AWs and has issued an order requiring AW staff to support Seva Mandir. Like the other partners, Seva Mandir has shared a monthly one-page note with the Director of ICDS, the Rajasthan state head, to update the state government on progress and challenges. Seva Mandir has requested the state ICDS department to revise the cost of dal (lentils) provided as part of supplementary nutrition and improve infrastructure.