KRISHNAGIRI: When the UNICEF and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) joined hands to launch an ambitious mid-day meal scheme for tribal children from six remote hamlets in Krishnagiri, hopes were high that the agencies would go a long way in tackling the problem of malnutrition crippling the district. The big names in the child welfare arena ticked all the right boxes and hit the ground running with their game-changing project. However, two years on, the much-touted scheme is gasping for breath, with the officials of both the agencies playing blame game over unflattering results.
The project, the first such foray by the international agency in Asia, was taken up at Thally block – an area picturesque enough to be called ‘Little England’, largely due to its climatic conditions and the hill ranges, but often in the news for all the wrong reasons like rampant child marriage, high dropout rate among tribal schools and high infant mortality rate among others. It was in this block the officials zeroed in on six villages – Thakkati Colony, Jodukarai, Sivapuram, Ezhumanaithotti, Aatur and Thadikethanthotti – around 125 km from the district headquarters and selected 78 children in the age group of two-and-a-half years to five years to provide them quality and nutrient-rich food. A kitchen was set up at Arthakkal village in Thakkati panchayat and a van was commissioned to take the food to children on all days except Sunday.
However, when Sunday Express paid a visit to these centres, it found that 15 of the original 78 children had already dropped out of the scheme. While at some centres the workers complained of poor quality food dished out to the children, at other places the staff were nursing a grouse against the agencies for not disbursing their salaries for over six months. At a centre, which was slated to answer the nutritious needs of the children from Monday to Saturday, the Sunday Express found that the workers took weekends off, forcing the children to skip their meals.
At Thakkati Colony, three children dropped out of the ICDS centre to join District or the Panchayat Union Primary Schools. Of the original 20 children selected under the scheme, 17 remain.
Attrition has taken a toll on the Sivapuram centre as well, with three opting out of the scheme, leaving the number at six from the original nine. Callousness of the staff too is writ large on the facilities, with the officials giving attendance a skip. At Thakkati the rolls were last marked in 2015, while at the latter centre, it stopped in April.
When the Sunday Express landed at the Arthakkal ICDS centre on a Saturday last month, the doors were shut. “Usually the anganwadi does not function on Saturdays. A few from the village had complained to authorities, but nothing changed,” says Madevan, whose son attends the centre. All the six centres followed the same pattern, with none of them monitoring the proceedings or inspecting the day-to-day activities.
When asked the reason for the apathy, the caretaker of Thakkati Colony centre, Munilakshmi, said she joined for a pay of `750 a month. However, she has not received her salary in the past six months. “I draw paltry wages and that too is not paid regularly. If this is the situation, why should I maintain the records?” she asks.
According to Amudha, the caretaker at Ezhumanaithotti centre, “Eggs, which are supplied thrice a week, are brought to the centres along with the rice. By the time it reaches its destination, the eggs that survive the travel start emitting a foul odour, due to which the children avoid it.”
Amudha’s concern is shared by Chitra, a villager, who says there is nothing nutritious in the food given to the children apart from the name. “They should either give the materials to prepare the meals here, or scrap the project,” she adds. Mallamma, the caretaker of Jodukarai, points out that come public holidays, food distribution gets hampered for two-three days.
The villagers claim there is something rotten in the supply mechanism apart from the egg. While the contractor gets paid for supplying food in a van, he delivers the meals on a two-wheeler. Moreover, despite the number of children attending the centres falling, there has been no reduction in the quantity of food supplied. While on paper the kitchen for supplying food for the six centres lies in Arthakkal, villagers alleged that it was based out of Anchetti. Though she initially dismissed the villagers’ claims, ICDS worker Kalavathy later admitted to anomalies in the supply chain.
UNICEF’s district-level consultant Jagadeshwari told Sunday Express that the agency’s role was confined to providing funds, while monitoring part was the domain of the District Programme Officer (DPO) of ICDS. When contacted, the State-level consultant, Deepika Sharma, refused to let on details of funding, but said she was unaware of the current status of the project. Meanwhile, another UNICEF official put the blame on the ICDS for not supporting the project.
When contacted, District Programme Officer Pushpalatha admitted to certain lapses, but said negative publicity could lead to cancellation of the project and dismissal of the workers, while also pushing tribal children to malnutrition.