Women are essential for the success of schemes like the mid-day meal programme. Improving their wages and working conditions would be better than blaming them when things go wrong.

Mahatma Gandhi once declared, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” By this yardstick, India does not fare well. Consider recent headlines alone: 23 Bihari children die after eating poisoned midday meals at their schools. Six-year-old Meghala dies of pneumonia in a Bangalore slum. Sixteen lakh Indian children have died quietly and anonymously before their fifth birthdays in the past year. A vast number of these deaths are linked to malnutrition, whether through diseases contracted as a result of depressed immune systems, reliance on government provided meals, or fatal vitamin deficiencies that lead to insurmountable health complications.

In India, narratives about childhood-hunger highlight a number of faceless villains — the midday meal cook-cum-helper who did not taste the insecticide-laden food in Bihar before serving it, the anganwadi worker who knew Meghala was malnourished but was unable to mobilise support to prevent her death, the community health workers whose visits to needy homes and health camps happen after diseases have run their courses.

These characters have several traits in common. They are poor. They are powerless. And, overwhelmingly, they are women.

The Bihari midday meal cook-cum-helper makes 1,000 rupees a month. Meghala’s Anganwadi worker makes 4,500 rupees a month — a rate she gets because she lives in Karnataka, a State that has committed to subsidising the low Central Government rate. Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers assigned to monitor the health of poor children do not even receive a fixed salary: they are paid by the individual that they service, 350 rupees for each urban patient and 200 for each rural patient. Their salaries are routinely delayed by months, and they are frequently given extra, unpaid work that prevents them from paying full attention to the responsibilities for which they were hired.

India’s children are hungry — so hungry that they are dying. This is not because an anganwadi worker did not alert a government hospital in time, or because the midday meal cook-cum-helper did not taste the food. This is because poor children — like their families — are caught in a net of unresponsive, inefficient policies administered by ill-treated, underpaid workers whose abilities are curtailed by their lack of access to education, training, and a living wage. So much of the corruption and inefficiency in the system could be managed if we only treated the poor — the mothers of these starving children — with dignity and respect, instead of noticing them only when something goes terribly wrong.

In fact, despite their working conditions, the very women we blame are most probably responsible for preventing more headlines than they create: anganwadi workers and helpers, midday meal cooks-cum-helpers, ASHA workers, and other poor women employed in poverty alleviation programmes are untiring dedicated advocates for children and families. In my research on the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), I have seen poor female scheme workers successfully lobby their local councilors for infrastructure improvements in schools and anganwadis; enroll children with disabilities in educational institutions that support them and their families academically and emotionally; register women for ration cards, voting cards, and public distribution schemes; and use money from their meagre salaries to pay for extra food, school supplies, and even clothing for starving children. This is particularly impressive given that many of these women are the primary breadwinners in low-income families. Perhaps this is why they struggle on behalf of hungry children: many of them are the mothers of hungry children themselves.

The issue of who implements government services and who benefits from them is particularly relevant now, as the Centre debates the Food Security Bill. Truly comprehensive poverty alleviation legislation must consider more than the beneficiaries. It must also consider those responsible for implementing the programme, many of whom are intentionally recruited from the communities they serve. It is my hope that the Food Security Bill, future iterations of the Integrated Child Development Scheme and Midday Meal Scheme, and upcoming public health programmes include provisions to improve working conditions and wages for the women who are essential for the schemes’ success.

Too often, we blame poverty on the poor. It is easier than admitting our complicity in the systems that reproduce our privilege and reinforce the hardships of others. After all, if we were to truly commit to eliminating poverty, we would have to sacrifice. We would have to pay higher taxes, make space in our neighborhoods for affordable housing, send our children to publicly funded government schools, and hold our politicians accountable for our most vulnerable citizens. Instead, we shake our heads and sigh when the media tells us what we want to hear: that the death of children is not in our hands.

Imagine what anganwadi workers and helpers, ASHA workers, and midday meal cooks-cum-helpers could do if they were regularised and paid a living wage. Imagine the possibilities for all of us, not just the children they serve. Imagine a more just and giving nation, one that did right by its weakest citizens, and rose to the challenge presented by our founders. Imagine a nation where we all took responsibility for poverty and committed to ending it.

That would be a nation Gandhiji could be proud of.