The economic fallout of COVID-19 makes the necessity of quality public welfare services more pressing than ever. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme that caters to the nutrition, health and pre-education needs of children till six years of age as well as the health and nutrition of women and adolescent girls is one such scheme. It requires work on multiple fronts to be effective, given that recent reports have shown gaps in the utilisation of services. Anganwadi centres (AWCs) could become agents of improved delivery of ICDS’s services. But for that, they need to be recast in a new avatar.
According to government data, the country has 13.77 lakh AWCs. These centres have undoubtedly expanded their reach, but they need to play a much larger role in anchoring community development. Nearly a fourth of the operational AWCs lack drinking water facilities and 36 per cent do not have toilets. In 2015, the NITI Aayog recommended better sanitation and drinking water facilities, improved power supply and basic medicines for the AWCs. It also suggested that these centres be provided with the required number of workers, whose skills should be upgraded through regular training.
ICDS beneficiaries do register for services but because the anganwadis lack adequate facilities, they turn to paid options. Privately-run centres come at a price, hitting low-income families the hardest. A study on utilisation of ICDS services in coastal Karnataka reported enrolment in private nursery schools as a major reason for non-adherence to ICDS services. It also reported the need for improvement in the quality of meals provided by the programme.
AWCs clearly do not seem to provide the environment that encourages parents to leave children at these centres. Only a limited number of AWCs have facilities like creche, and good quality recreational and learning facilities for pre-school education. Research has shown the significance of the playing-based learning approach in the cognitive development of children. An approach that combines an effective supplementary nutrition programme with pedagogic processes that make learning interesting is the need of the hour.