"Exhibiting You" - Story

Aanganwadi: The Truth Behind Steel Doors

By: joyshri
Submitted: 01/18/2009

Open the steel door and an unpleasant odour of urine and uncontrolled bowel movements, assails the nostrils. There are children all over the striped red and blue dhurrie that covers the floor of the 14’ x 14’ room. They range from 0 to 7years. All face the woman seated in an unwashed, white plastic chair. For those who have reached the age of comprehension, she is the wicked witch from Hansel and Gretel, the step mother from Snow-White, the old woman from Sleeping Beauty, Manthra and Srupnakha all rolled into one. For the new and uninitiated, she is a terrifying vision with a pinched, pock-marked, angry face, dressed in loud colours, embellished with silver trinkets and threads. For children who should be revelling in the above-mentioned stories, their minder is a nightmare come true.

As I watch, she picks up the crying toddlers and smiles at them as they try to escape her tentacle like arms. I close the door behind me and then surprise everyone by rentering. The minder, who has flung two crying babies on the floor, is hitting them on the head and face as she tells them to keep quiet. After their stint at the Aanganwadi, all will learn that silence is the golden rule and if it can be combined with stillness, even better. Perhaps this is the ideal training ground for girls who will have to be subserviant all their lives and boys who will never learn to express their true feelings.

The children start streaming in from 8.30 am. Some smile as it is their first day and mothers have bribed them with toffees, the promise of kheer and a day full of fun. Others have apprehension written all over their faces because they have experienced life behind the brutal steel doors. Some cry out aloud, begging to go back home because they are afraid and yet too young to put their fear into words. They can only feel it.

Twentyfive years ago, I came across the Aanganwadi project on a tea estate in North Bengal. On paper it is a beautiful vision by an inspired government organisation that cares about the very poor of India. It is a project that allows both parents to work while their children are looked after by trained foster mothers. Working, successful models of a similar kind are to be found in the SOS Villages. The Aanganwadi project offers children a midday meal and lactating mothers a bowl of the same. In the Punjab the menu varies between kheer, daliya and pinnis.

The project provides gas cylinders and utensils for cooking, teaching materials, story books and toys. However, all seem to exist only in the booklet. Supervisors visit every now and again, check registers, shout at the teachers and helpers, then move on to their next port of call. Ask them where the recommended materials are and they site some unnamed group in the chain of command, who are not doing their duty. They say that many reminders have been sent but the group takes no action. No one is responsible for anything.

The items that do arrive with clock-work regularity are the dry rations for the midday meal. Once these were found stored at a helpers home (the reason is obvious!) and when weighed, found short. The offender had to make up the loss by the same evening. There was a lot of shouting, threats and remorseful crying. So as not to lose her job, the helper produced the stuff within the hour. My guess is that she pinched it from another Aanganwadi. In retrospect, if the whole situation had not been so tragic, it would have been unbelievably comic and melodramatic. Here was a woman, stealing from destitutes to feed her own family. She is not paid enough to make a decent living. She has a grudge against life in general and innocent children bear the brunt of her pent up anger. Inefficiency, lack of will power and above all, corruption, all leave mauled victims in their trail.

The above mentioned description is hellish. I am sure that all government run correctional institutions, Naari Niketans and “Protective Homes” present the same scenario. They are wonderful when worked out on paper but sadly lacking in their implementation. What ails all these projects? Obviously a lack of initiative and the will to make them work. So a scheme that was to help non-working mothers and widows to earn while caring for the children of very poor, working parents, has gone horribly wrong.

Election time needs man power. Instead of recruiting from the millions of jobless, the states tap the Aanganwadis. For days on end, teachers are deputed for Election Duties with no thought towards their little charges. In an equally frivolous manner, workers and teachers are sent off for training which should actually be imparted at the place of work with the children and the classroom as live models. Assessments ought to be made in the class not in copy books at some training centre. Once or twice a week the Aanganwadi teachers leave their work to submit registers, reports and stock lists. The children are again left to the helpers who treat babies and all with a steely hand that beats them into silence.

In defense of the Aanganwadi employees, it is suggested that children are divided into groups according to their ages. Babies will cry and cannot be expected to be silent. Toddlers will fidget and cannot be kept from moving around. Older children will need to be busy and occupied. It would be better to employ teachers and helpers for the different groups according to their temperament and training.

The Aanganwadi I’ve witnessed from close quarters, has a private school running alongside. The school children pay their fees. The government sponsored project is for the poorest of poor. The children from both institutions belong to the same area. When this was pointed out to the Aanganwadi teacher, she shook her head and said her young charges were incapable of learning anything. Obviously no amount of training is going to change her mindset.When burtal beatings were brought to the notice of the supervisor, she smiled and justified them by saying, “Don’t we hit our own children too?”

On any given day, 40 to 50 children crowd into a small space. Two rooms have been allocated for this purpose but because of the above mentioned extra duties, a single helper finds it easier to manage a room full, stinks and all. She just bolts the steel door and silence prevails. These children are from two Aanganwadis, one housed in a cowshed, the other under a tree, near a temple. A kindhearted man, who started a school in the slums, offered the shelter of two rooms, to save the children from the severe temperatures of the Punjab. He did not realise that the freedom of the cow shed and temple were preferable to the prison he has now created!

Who is the victim and who the devil in this situation? Apportioning blame and finding scape-goats does not offer a solution. The disease runs much deeper and ought to be tackled from the source. The initiator is the Government. Till it starts taking responsibility for what it creates and monitors its projects, only the NGOs can do a far better job.

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