At one end of a road in the Saket Block area of Mandawali in East Delhi is a building that houses four anganwadis. These child-care centres are decorated with flowers, paintings and pictures of alphabets, rainbows, fruits and vegetables.

The building is just a 10-minute walk away from where Mangal Singh, his wife Bina, and their three daughters lived until July 21. They moved out for reasons unclear, and on July 24, the daughters – eight-year-old Mansi, Shikha, four, and two-year-old Paro – were found dead. The postmortem report said they had died of starvation. Their mother is mentally challenged and their father has been missing since July 23. A magisterial inquiry into the deaths is now underway.

Anganwadis such as the ones in Saket Block are government-run child care and development centres that were established to help combat the high rates of malnutrition in India. The National Family Health Survey 4, conducted between 2015 and 2016, said that 38.4% children under five in India have stunted growth (low height for their age) while 35.7% are underweight. In Delhi, 32.4% children aged below five years have a stunted growth, while 27.3% of children aged below five years are underweight.

According to the National Food Security Act, 2013, the state government has to identify malnourished children in an area and provide free meals to them through the local anganwadis. Additionally, all children under the age of six are entitled to free meals as are women from pregnancy up to six months from child birth.

The Integrated Child Development Scheme, meanwhile, lays out additional rules for these centres. Among other things, anganwadi workers are supposed to survey families in their area once a year. They are required to visit families and encourage them to enroll their children in anganwadis.

Inside the anganwadi centre at Saket Block, Mandawali.

However, of the three sisters of the Singh family, only Mansi was enrolled in an anganwadi and for just one year, 2013 to 2014, said an anganwadi worker who requested anonymity.

“They used to send her for a few months and then she stopped coming,” said the worker. “I think they moved back to their village. And later, that anganwadi shifted to this centre, which started in November 2017. They moved to another part of Saket Block and kept shifting but we cannot keep running after them. We would know if they would be in another area.”

For the last two years, the Singh family had been living in lane 14 of Saket Block. The anganwadi worker said that lane was not covered by any of the anganwadis at the centre.

However, the supervisor of the centre denied this. She claimed that all of Mandawali is covered by the four anganwadis and each of the 33 workers has an area assigned to them.

The building that houses four anganwadi centres in Saket Block.

When this reporter spoke to the women living in lane 14, they said that no aganwadi worker had ever come to their home or asked them to enroll their children. “I’ve been living here for three years but anganwadi workers have never come,” said Sulekha Devi who is from Bihar and has two children, aged six and four.

Rumpa Devi shard a similar story. “I’ve been living here for five years but they have not visited us,” she said. “But some people from the dispensary came for polio awareness.”

When contacted again, the supervisor said that there is “no worker dedicated to that area” and refused to say anymore.

Anita Bharel, Deputy Director of the Integrated Child Development Scheme, said she had just received her transfer orders and refused to comment.

On the right, the Singh family's previous home in galli 14, Saket Block.

Uneven implementation

In other parts of Saket Block too, there were residents who said they had never been visited by anganwadi workers.

One of them was Anita Devi, who has a five-year-old and lives in the lane adjacent to the building that houses the four anganwadis. Her neighbour, Mamta Devi, also said she had not been paid a visit.

On the other hand, Ashwini Yadav, who lives in a parallel lane, said that her child has been regularly going to the anganwadi for a year. “They come very regularly to counsel us and tell us what protein-filled food to give the children,” she added. “Since the last two to three days, they’ve been coming here every day. If there is anything, they also organise a meeting with all the mothers to tell us what to feed our children.”

Rama Devi, one of her neighbours, said she sends her child to the anganwadi regularly. “If they don’t go for one day, then they [anganwadi workers] come and ask why. They also regularly check the weight of the child.”

However, Pooja Devi, a resident whose child goes to the anganwadi said that the workers did not come for personalised visits or counselling. “They just call a meeting for all women to come.”

Another resident, who requested anonymity, also said that her three-year-old child has been going to the the anganwadi for the past two months, but claimed that the last time anganwadi workers had come to their area was four to five months ago.

A street in Saket Block, Mandawali.

Activists say that such lapses undermine the very purpose of the angwanwadis.

“These are vulnerable areas and there is no scope to leave a lane,” said Arvind Singh of Matri Sudha, an organisation that works in the field of child nutrition. “The anganwadi services must reach every child. What is the point if some children are left out? They have a mandate to conduct periodic surveys. Mandawali is a densely populated area and the families living there are the ones preferred for such government schemes.”

Dipa Sinha, a Right to Food activist, said that anganwadi workers should not be blamed. “What is anyone doing to facilitate her [anganwadi workers’] job?” she said. “It is very difficult to demand accountability from them. They’re paid a pittance and there is no support for their work.”

She added: “The Delhi government has to do with anganwadi workers what they have been doing with the schools. They realised that they had to empower the teachers. In Delhi particularly, this is a very neglected department.”

All photos by Aabid Shafi.