Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala: Every day, a basket is kept in the compound of an anganwadi in Manickal gram panchayat, in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. Community members and mothers of children who attend the anganwadi drop vegetables into the basket, voluntarily, that are used as part of the meal that children receive at the anganwadi. This idea came out of the Mothers' Committee of the anganwadi, which also asked all mothers to contribute Rs 1 each day to make sure that vegetables can be added to their children's diets.

Anganwadis in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, such as this one, function effectively to deliver early childhood care and education, because of active community participation and citizen-based committees, such as the Anganwadi Level Monitoring and Support Committee (ALMSC) and the Mothers' Committee, showed visits to the anganwadis and interactions with various anganwadi teachers and helpers, mothers, supervisors and ward members.

ALMSCs are entirely governed, managed and run by panchayat-elected members, also known as ward members, community members, mothers and frontline workers. They act as a forum for deliberation and discussion on the administration of anganwadis, in addition to being a monitoring mechanism, our reporting in March 2022 showed.

ALMSCs are the "backbone of the anganwadi system and ICDS services", said Vijaya Kumari, a ward member of Ward 15 of the Manickal gram panchayat, referring to the Integrated Child Development Services under the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. "Anganwadis would cease to exist if not for ALMSCs. How will we achieve anything without discussion?"

Mothers' committees include pregnant and lactating mothers, mothers of the children enrolled in the anganwadi, and the anganwadi teacher and helper, and double up as mechanisms to share information on neonatal, antenatal, maternal health, hygiene and sanitation, including on government schemes, said Kumari Kala, a child development officer in Thiruvananthapuram. Unlike ALMSCs, mothers' committees are informal in nature, and there are no written guidelines mandating their operation.

Anganwadis function as part of the ICDS, the national programme for the development of mothers and children, started in 1975. The ICDS scheme provides six services: supplementary nutrition, early childhood care and education, nutrition and health education, immunisation, health check-ups and referral services to more than 67.5 million children and 15.6 million pregnant and lactating women. All children, six months to six years, pregnant women and lactating mothers are eligible for anganwadi services.

These anganwadis play an important role in a country that was ranked 101 of 116 countries on the 2021 Global Hunger Index. They are also an important source of nutrition when more than 35% of Indian children are short for their age (known as stunting) and 19.3% are too thin for their height (known as wasting), according to data from the latest National Family Health Survey.

Why anganwadis need monitoring

A mini toilet for kids in an anganwadi in Manickal gram panchayat, Vamanapuram, Thiruvananthapuram, March 14, 2022.

A usual day at the anganwadi in Kunnida village, under the Manickal Gram Panchayat, begins at 9 am, with the teacher and helper preparing the room: sweeping it, arranging the small orange plastic chairs in a row, dusting the table, toys and shelves, and ensuring that the chart papers and posters on the walls are all in order for the kuttighal (tiny tots) to learn from.

The children meanwhile come between 9.30 and 10.00 a.m., some jumping and skipping, holding their mothers' hands, excited for what the day has in store for them; others yawning, rubbing their eyes, trying to shake the sleep off. As they remove their tiny footwear to enter the premises of the classroom, the smell of coconut oil and daliya (broken wheat) wafts in from the kitchen. On the menu for today's morning snack is daliya upma. On other days, it is hot ragi (millets) upma with vegetables or kanji (rice porridge). But first, the children participate in morning prayers, teachers take attendance and check children's nails, teeth and hair as part of the weekly health check up.

Not all anganwadis work as well as this one. For instance, in several states like Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, only half (52%) of the surveyed anganwadis had clean drinking water facilities as of 2016. Another 2019 survey found that in some states not everyone was receiving benefits of the government's maternity benefits programme through Anganwadis.

To ensure effective ICDS services, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has a slew of guidelines on the formation of community-based monitoring mechanisms at the grassroots. The guidelines came out in 1994, 2010, and then again in 2011. While the 1994 guidelines were on forming Bal Vikas Mahila Samitis (Women and Child Development Committees) at the village, block and district levels to monitor the ICDS, the 2010 guidelines included the involvement of Panchayati Raj institutions.

In 2011, the ministry came up with a five-tier monitoring and review mechanism, including at the national, state, district, block and anganwadi levels. The objective was that anganwadis work directly with the state departments for education, health etc. and access government funds and schemes, and the implementation of the ICDS scheme is monitored under the mechanism. The ALMSCs are at the foundation of this mechanism. Different states such as Tamil Nadu and Assam have also come up with their own sets of guidelines for ALMSCs.

Decisions taken by ALMSCS in Kerala

ALMSCs are not just for monitoring anganwadis but also for disseminating information as well as discussions on minor and major matters, from a child's birthday celebration to repairing the roof, said ICDS supervisors and members.

Generally, it is the convenor of an ALMSC, the anganwadi teacher, who calls for a meeting, after checking the availability of the panchayat ward member. One of the most crucial tasks for the ALMSC is maintaining an anganwadi, said Jalaja, an anganwadi teacher in Vamanapuram, who likes to be addressed as teacher. She said: "Be it the construction of boundary walls, water shortage during summer seasons, concerns around the safety and security of children, getting more games and toys and learning material for the kids, repair of a leaky roof ceiling, getting a separate store room built to keep stocks of food etc.--it all fall within the purview of the discussions."

Anganwadis come under the purview of the gram panchayats in Kerala, and some of its funds, including for maintenance, infrastructure, furniture, supplementary nutrition, electricity and sanitation come directly from the panchayat. "Once a decision is taken by the ALMSC, we take it directly to the Women and Child working group of the panchayat and from there it goes to the Health and Education Standing Committee of the panchayat for it to become a plan and get budget allocations," said Vijaya Kumari, the ward member.

Drawings made by children at an anganwadi in Manickal gram panchayat, March 14, 2022.

When funds are needed urgently, and if the need can be met through crowdfunding, the community contributes, as do youth clubs, residential associations and political parties. When the ceiling fan was not working in this anganwadi in Ward 15 of Manickal gram panchayat, the committee members decided to go for crowdfunding, said Jalaja. "The money was collected by our residential association [of Ward 15 of the Manickal gram panchayat] and details were written in the register maintained by the ALMSC. I presented the fund details to everyone and the ALMSC collectively took stock of the funds remaining."

Mothers' committees

"There is no format or guidelines which the mothers' committees in Kerala follow. The process of discussion and deliberation is rather organic and most times, the meetings are purpose-based and they meet at least once a month," said Jalaja.

"During discussion with other mothers and the anganwadi teacher, I am able to assess how my child is behaving, how she is eating, how she is performing in class, etc.," P. Simina, whose child goes to the anganwadi in ward 15 of Manickal gram panchayat, said. Simina is a home-based worker, and used to be a school teacher. "For any anganwadi to function effectively, there should be discussions, sharing and information dissemination. I can only learn such things if I join and participate regularly in forums like the Mothers' Committee. How can we learn such things sitting at home?"

In addition to the mothers, other women who are interested in the health and the well-being of the children enrolled in the anganwadi can also join. They discuss issues ranging from dissemination of information on schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (a conditional cash transfer scheme for pregnant and lactating women of 19 years of age or above for the first live birth), the Janani Suraksha Yojana (a scheme focusing on poor pregnant woman with a special dispensation for states that have low institutional delivery rates), maternal health and the reasons behind a child's lack of interest in classes etc.

"For us, it is like a nutrition class. We get information on health, hygiene, and how to meet the nutrition needs of our kids. In addition, we also discuss how various physiological aspects of our kids can be improved," said Soumya Nair, a mother of a four-year-old, in an anganwadi at Manickal gram panchayat.

Nair had attended the same anganwadi when she was a child, as did seven other mothers/fathers in the Mother's Committee, she said. "Anganwadis have improved a lot from our times."

Mothers sitting with their kids in the foyer of the anganwadi in Manickal Gram panchayat, March 14, 2022.

Disputes within committees resolved by higher level officers

There can be disputes within ALMSCs, between mothers and teachers, and between ward members and other members, sometimes related to funds, Kala, the child development officer said. "During these times, they either consult the ICDS supervisor and if the issue spirals out of control, they reach out to me…Most of the time, the conflicts are manageable and can be resolved by talking to the concerned parties."

During Covid-19, as the anganwadis were shut, the functioning of these citizen committees was severely impeded. "While we did try to do online meetings for mothers as well as to take some decisions, they weren't half as active as when done in person," said Athira P., an ICDS supervisor for anganwadis in Vamanapuram. "Thankfully, after the reopening of the anganwadis, the committees have started to revive slowly. Just last week, we had an ALMSC meeting to decide how to go about performing the activities of the anganwadi after a gap of two years."

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