18 tiny tots spend their days at Nest anganwadi in Valiyangadi without clean air, drinking water, and sunlight

At Nest anganwadi, before every meal the children say a simple prayer. It goes: Deivame, ee bhakshanathinu nanni (God, thank you for this meal). But not every prayer of the children is answered.

Nest is one of the many urban anganwadis run by the Social Justice Department in urban Kozhikode.

Located inside a cramped room within the city’s Central Fish and Meat Market at Valiyangadi, 18 tiny tots spend their days here without the basic necessities of life, chiefly clean air, drinking water, and sunlight.

But with the department willing only to shell out a maximum Rs.750 as monthly building rent for its Anganwadis, this is the best children can get.

“Even to be allowed this Rs.750, the department demands that anganwadis should have a hall, a storeroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom with 24 hours running water. The rent prices in the city climb by the day. Rent for a one-room shop at Valiyangadi is nothing less than Rs.4,000. Where do we find a decent place here for Rs.750?” C.P. Rukiya, Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) supervisor, explains the department’s disconnect with ground reality.

The children at Nest come from the neighbourhood orphanage, Corporation slum colonies, and line houses near the Kozhikode beach where families from the fishing community live.

A punishment?

Every morning they are shepherded through a narrow lane where drains from the market overflow and fish boxes are stacked high to reach a small crumbling building with a steep stone staircase. Heaps of broken liquor bottles occupy the space under the stairs.

The steps lead to a dark enclosure on the first floor. The walls are still damp and patched, so is the floor. The roof is cardboard. A makeshift kitchen is separated by a cardboard partition from the room where the children sit.

Anganwadi teacher K. Rashmi says they have been without cooking gas for a month.

“We use kerosene to cook the food for the children,” she says. Yes, she says she is aware of the danger of using a rusty stove with kerosene.

In that room, government-issued wooden cupboards, dumped there for years, eat up whatever little space meant for the children.

Torn placards of the Mahatma, a pulse polio campaign, and the English and Malayalam alphabets hang on the walls.

Come mid-day, the heat sends in waves of the stench from the market. Ms. Rashmi attempts to close the windows and switch on the solitary fan.

But this leaves the room in pitch darkness. There is no electric light in this room.

“The whole day, children sit in this darkness. There is no space to play outside, and inside here, there is no space to even spread their arms wide,” Ms. Rashmi says.

Dismal state

The place is without a toilet for the children.

“Children are rushed to a neighbour’s house. Makkal pokunathu vallavarude toilet-ila (my children go to other people’s toilets). Look, they wash their plates and urinate in the same place,” C. Kunhala, the anganwadi helper, says, pointing at a small depression on the floor where the tiles are discoloured after years of usage. A half-filled bucket of water is nearby.

With no pipe connection, Ms. Kunhala draws water from a public tap situated near the fish market and hauls it in by the buckets. She is paid Rs.2,500 a month as salary.

“The water does not come regularly. At times, there are men from the market bathing at the tap. I wait for them to finish. This is a practice for the past 32 years I have been with the anganwadi. Nothing has changed,” she says.

“This building belongs to a private party. We pay Rs.500 as monthly rent. The anganwadi continues here because it is very difficult to find a spacious place within the city for the children,” Ms. Rashmi says.

“It is terrible… the situation of the children there. I had approached the Kozhikode Corporation a year ago after identifying an alternative space on Aurobindo Ghosh Road. But there is no response so far,” P. Kishenchand, Valiyangadi councillor, says.

Meanwhile, the children have finished their meal of rice-and-pulse gruel.

Rukiya, a three-year-old from Muqadar, proudly displays her empty plate to everyone present. The others grin as she loudly proclaims to the room: “I am first!”

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