In the doorway of anganwadi building number 97 at Thekke Kadampara ooru, 12-year-old Dinesh Nanjan lifts the plate of kanji to his mouth. Stubborn clumps of rice, procured from the local ration shop at Re.1 a kg, stick to the surface of the plate, refusing to budge. Dinesh sweeps it down deftly and drinks it up.

It is a quarter past 3 in the afternoon. The Class Six student has returned from school, famished, but too late for the green grams’ upperi. So, he has to do with whatever little rice gruel is left.

Mari, the tribal hamlet’s ‘mooppen’, says Dinesh has sickle cell anaemia. He needs regular medical care and nutrition.

“I don’t like to come here. I come only when I cannot hold my hunger, like today,” Dinesh says.

In Attappady, the anganwadi is not exactly a bright place for a tiny tot or an expecting mother to spend her day.

The place has 172 anganwadis where kanjium payarum is staple food. There are six supervisors for the 172 anganwadis. Five posts have remained vacant for the past two years.

At Thekke Kadampara in Sholayur panchayat, the anganwadi has no basic facilities.

The rainwater harvesting tank is a pit where garbage lies on top of an abandoned bullock cart wheel. A frayed cradle rope hangs from the roof of the anganwadi, a muddied tattered menu adorns its wall alongside a twisted notice board. Two words are visible– thaamara (lotus) and poomaram (flowering tree). Dinesh has not seen a thaamara.

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme describes the anganwadi as “India’s response to the challenge of providing pre-school education on the one hand and breaking the vicious cycle of malnutrition, morbidity, reduced learning capacity, and mortality”.

The institution of anganwadi — the first defence against malnutrition in a tribal hamlet — limps while the Attappady block panchayat’s 11 Five-Year Plan for 2007-2012, grandiosely titled ‘The Vision Ahead’, stresses the “need to better monitor anganwadi working and a nutritious food scheme for children and pregnant mothers”.

Meanwhile, Pushpa N.C, the hamlet’s anganwadi worker, is in a fix on April 30.

Twenty-four hours back, startled by the furore over the death of children, the State government has ordered the distribution of milk, eggs and bananas in all anganwadis in Attappady.

But the expenses of this knee-jerk welfare initiative would be met by anganwadi workers like Ms. Pushpa. She would be reimbursed only on showing the voucher at the month-end — another sign of the widening gulf between the ‘well-intentioned’ State and harsh ground reality.

Ms. Pushpa lives on a salary of Rs.4,000, walks three km to the bus stop, then takes a bus or a jeep, as per availability, to the hamlet. The bus ticket is Rs.10 one-way. A trip in a jeep costs Rs. 20. She has 10 pre-school children between the ages of three and six, three pregnant mothers, and one nursing mother under her care.

“The anganwadi requires 2.10 litres of milk everyday. The milk will cost about Rs.66 a day here. We need 14 eggs a day. One egg costs Rs. 4.50. I don’t know about bananas… never bought them. How do I afford this with my salary?” she asks.

Vanaja R, anganwadi worker at the primitive Kurumba tribe hamlet, Edavani ooru, is no outsider like Ms. Pushpa. The hamlet is her home and the 12 children below five years old and the one nursing mother are linked to her either by marriage or blood. “On one side, how can I not give them eggs, milk and bananas… On the other, I have no money to buy it… if only they would give the money in advance…”

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