The Khushi project in Rajasthan shows the way
It took just a few minutes for children aged between three and six years to convert a heap of pebbles into a number of squares, circles, rectangles and triangles on the floor. They may not have been perfect replicas, but the joy it sparked in them was electrifying.
The activity was taking place at the anganwadi in Gatheela Kheda, a village in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district. This is one among 1,078 child care centres being run under the Khushi project in three blocks each of Bhilwara and Chittaurgarh district. The objective, since it started in 2016, has been to strengthen the quality of health and nutrition programmes being run by grassroots institutions like anganwadis.
This one at Gatheela was headed by 50-year-old Snehlata Sharma, who blended easily with the children as they together enacted a poem in a sing-song manner, moving their bodies in tandem. The décor at the anganwadi may not match that of an elite play-school in a metropolitan city, but in terms of quality and involvement of both children and teacher, it was not lacking in any way. “In fact, children from some of the privately-run playschools in Bhilwara have shifted to these anganwadis because of their better functioning,” says Gyanendra Vishwakarma, Khushi’s project coordinator.
Last year, when 100 per cent of the children — 2,400 from anganwadis in Bhilwara — were mainstreamed into formal schools, it prompted the community to turn it into a festival. So, the villagers celebrated Shala Pravesh Utsav with school kits being given to all new entrants. The curricula and activities at these anganwadis are devised towards the overall development of the children. Besides taking care of the physical and mental aspects, the endeavour is to also help them converse, by developing their vocabulary, creativity, social behaviour and sensitivity towards the environment.
For each of these goals, the milestones are well-defined and detailed in an activity book provided to the anganwadi workers after they are trained under the project and provided orientation from time to time. “Engaging a child for four hours is a big challenge and has to be done such that the child does not lose interest or get bored,” explains Vishwakarma. Therefore, all learning takes place through storytelling, poetry, games, creative activities and incentives to motivate the children.
More children at anganwadis
Another challenge that Khushi coordinators confronted at the commencement of the project was fake enrolment of children in anganwadis. While children’s names existed in the attendance register, they were not coming to the anganwadi. Sometimes, they only turned up for the mid-day meal and would leave after that.
According to data collected from these angawadis, there has been improvement since the project started in both attendance and retention of children for the mandatory four hours.
“The children now don’t say ‘ madam, janwa (shall I go?)’ after having their meals, as was the case earlier. Now they want to stay on and enjoy every bit of whatever we are doing here,” says Sharma. That was also evident from the active participation of the children, whether it involved identifying birds and animals, reciting poems or creating things from waste material.
To involve the parents, ‘portfolio bags’ are created which are filled with what the child has made. These are showcased at the monthly meetings so that parents can see the progress of their wards. Periodic health check-ups are organised for the children and special attention given to those suffering from malnutrition through home visits. “We even try to celebrate birthdays of the children attending anganwadis as an incentive,” says Vishwakarma.
“Our focus is on building the capacity of anganwadi workers, strengthening technical support systems, improving infrastructure and creating innovative teaching and learning material from local waste and resources. So, we use pebbles, clay, cardboard, waste paper, fallen tree leaves and other such things,” explains Akhilesh Dubey, project manager of Care India’s Khushi.
He says for effective functioning of these anganwadis, the active involvement and support of self-help groups, ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) officials at the block level, the local community as well the corporate sector is invaluable. Care India works towards coordination amongst all the stakeholders. For instance, the Gatheela Kheda anganwadi was able to raise Rs. 2.5 lakh in kind from the community and panchayat functionaries as well as support in other initiatives.
Outcomes at the Gatheela village anganwadi show that handholding by a voluntary organisation can make a world of difference to grassroots institutions. Like here, in other places too, they can play a crucial role in improving the nutrition, health and education status of children in rural India.
This article appeared in The Hindu Business Line on April 20, 2019.