In the last six months, Bhagyamma’s days have become very busy. An anganwadi worker in Chowdeswarihalli village in Ramanagaram taluk in Karnataka, she is responsible for around 10 children under six years of age from 9 am to 4 pm every day. Anganwadis are govenment-run creches and anganwadi workers like Bhagyamma provide basic healthcare and nutrition to India’s vast rural population.

Bhagyamma brings the children to the anganwadi in the morning, teaches them their lessons and supervises their recreation. She serves them milk at 10 am, a snack at 10.30 am and a hot meal at 1.30 pm that is cooked by the anganwadi helper. She then puts them down for a nap. After the meal, the vessels have to be washed and put away and the anganwadi cleaned.

Since October, Bhagyamma has also had to make sure pregnant and breastfeeding women in her village get a hot cooked meal at the anganwadi during the day.

This meal is part of Karnataka’s Mathru Poorna programme to ensure better maternal nutrition and thereby improve the health of pregnant women and young mothers and consequently of young children. It offers beneficiaries one nutritious meal a day for 25 days in a month for 15 months – from the start of pregnancy up to six months after delivery. The women are served rice, sambar or dal with vegetables, an egg or sprouts, milk and a peanut jaggery chikki, all of which is supposed to meet 40% of their dietary requirements. It replaces the take-home rations they were earlier given.

“We adjust the meal timings according to when the women come,” said Bhagyamma. “If there is someone with a health concern, like a woman who has had a caesarean section, we try to make sure she gets lunch on time.”

She added, “It is a lot of work. If the anganwadi helper takes even one day of casual leave, then I am stuck with the basic anganwadi work for the whole day. There is no time to teach the children or do any activities with them on that day.”

It does not help that along with her tight schedule at the anganwadi, Bhagyamma has also been given the additional duty of a block-level officer to help enrol new voters before the Assembly elections in the state on May 12.

Bhagyamma, the anganwadi worker at Chowdeswarihalli village in Ramanagara district in Karnataka. (Photo: Nayantara Narayanan)

‘A lot of work’

The bulk of the work under Mathru Poorna does not comprise just cooking and serving the meal. Anganwadi workers are also responsible for outreach and are so far the only channels through which the scheme’s benefits are communicated to rural communities.

“They have to keep track of and visit the pregnant and breastfeeding women in their areas and convince them to come for the meal,” said Saraswati, who works with the government programme Mahila Samakhya, which is monitoring the rollout of Mathru Poorna across the state. “That is a lot of work.”

Anticipating the extra workload, several anganwadi workers’ associations had gone on strike in August, pointing out that they were already struggling with cooking the mid-day meal for children. They were also worried that under the Mathru Poorna scheme, they would have to drop off meals at the homes of women who could not come to the anganwadi. Another grievance was that their remunerations were paid irregularly. In April 2017, the state government had raised the monthly honorarium for anganwadi workers from Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 and for anganwadi helpers from Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000.

Five anganwadi associations had also filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court requesting a stay on the implementation of the scheme, but the court had rejected the plea.

“It is more work for anganwadi workers,” agreed Uma Mahadevan, principal secretary for women and child development in the Karnataka government. But she added, “We did not start any of this without increasing their honorarium. We are also giving rather decent benefits. Last year, we increased their [annual] medical reimbursement to Rs 50,000. Earlier, it was Rs 20,000 and Rs 10,000 for workers and helpers.”

The anganwadi workers can also have the mid-day meals themselves.

Furthermore, Mahadevan said anganwadis were being equipped with cooking gas connections that came with double cylinders and double-burner stoves – to replace the single-burner stoves they already have – as well as extra pressure cookers.

The Shanbhoganahalli anganwadi is managing the additional cooking for Mathru Poorna beneficiaries with a single-burner stove with a broken stand. (Photo: Nayantara Narayanan)

Broken stoves, no piped water

But more than six months after the scheme’s launch, the anganwadi in Shanbhoganahalli, also in Ramanagaram taluk, has none of these upgrades. Meals are still cooked on a single-burner stove, which has seen better days – three stones prop up the cooking vessel in place of its broken stand.

Soubhagya, the anganwadi worker here, also has to contend with a lack of piped water. She and the anganwadi helper take turns to fetch water in buckets from a tap across the road. “We do not want to do this Mathru Poorna programme,” she said. “Let the government give it to the health department to manage on its own.”

The Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in Bengaluru conducted a study of anganwadis in Karnataka and found that many of them face basic problems such as gas cylinders not being delivered on time. “These issues affect the general functioning of anganwadis and if they continue will affect Mathru Poorna,” said Jyotsna Jha, the centre’s director.

According to Bhagyamma, the money allocated to the Chowdeswarihalli anganwadi for the Mathru Poorna scheme is often delayed and she has to pay for vegetables and eggs from her own pocket.

The Centre for Budget and Policy Studies also carried out an analysis of a pilot programme for Mathru Poorna that the government ran in four blocks of the state in February and March 2017. “We had suggested following the Tamil Nadu model, which is having two anganwadi workers and a helper,” said Jha. One can focus on women and the community and the other can focus on the children. Even in terms of expertise, the two anganwadi workers can be trained differently and there can be more focus on things like early childhood development that is largely neglected. After the introduction of Mathru Poorna, it becomes even more important.”

A year since their honorariums were increased, anganwadi workers in Karnataka also continue to demand remuneration that is commensurate to their workload – Rs 18,000 a month for anganwadi workers and Rs 12,000 for helpers.

“An employee in the garment factories here gets Rs 12,000 to Rs 14,000 while we look after children and still get so little,” said Bhagyamma.

Jha said the government must make it its priority to protect and nurture its anganwadi workers, who work on the frontlines of almost all government programmes. “If you want them to be community change agents, then you need to strengthen them. Otherwise, empowerment work itself can become exploitative.”

This is the second part of a two-part series on the hot cooked meal programme for women. Read the first part here.