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Caste Plays An Ugly Role In Keeping India At A High Rate Of Under-Nutrition

“In the Anganwadi Center (AWC), they consider us as untouchable. That’s why we are not sending our children there. Our children are not allowed to sit with other children.”

This was narrated by a young mother from the Angul district of Odisha, belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. She was visibly frustrated, as she explained how her child of only four years, is deprived of a hot cooked meal, that is provided by the Government, at the AWCs, owing to the decades-old prevalence of caste-based discrimination.

This case is not in isolation, however. As we made our way to different villages across the district, the exclusion of women and children from India’s largest scheme on nutrition, the Integrated Child Development Services, (ICDS), was evident. 

Undernourishment Is A Multifold Issue

The rate of undernutrition in India is alarming. Every third child is under-nourished, and the country is home to a massive 194.6 million malnourished people. Multiple factors that contribute to this, including: 

  • Poor diversity in the diets of women and children
  • High levels of anaemia among women of reproductive age
  • Low literacy levels among women
  • Poor water and sanitation conditions
  • Lack of access to government services

Caste-based discrimination emerges as a chief issue among these contributing factors, limiting access to government services, such as the AWCs mentioned in the case study above. 

Data reveals that among the unbelievable number of malnourished people in the country, certain sections of society – the STs and SCs – are worse off than others. According to NFHS, 4,42.8% of children under 5 are stunted in SC communities, while it is 43.8% for ST communities, and 38.4% for other social groups – indicating a stark difference between different social groups.

What The Case Of Angul Tells Us

In the case of Angul, research conducted by IPE Global, in collaboration with DCOR, Odisha, threw light on an interesting anomaly. On purely economic terms, Angul is one of the best fiscally performing districts in Odisha, contributing to around 5.7% of the state’s GDP. One would assume that this high rate of development was synonymous with a decline in challenges to health and well being. Angul taught us otherwise. 

The 38 villages we studied in the district had a total of 14 AWCs spread out between them. A deeper look revealed that villages with higher proportions of SC and ST populations had AWCs that were located much further away than others. 

The second learning that emerged was that there was a lack of representation of the SC and ST social groups among Anganwadi Workers (AWWs). In our sample sizes, we noticed that even in villages with SC and ST proportions as high as 65%, less than 20% of AWWs belonged to these social groups. 

A similar case in local governance: none of the Sarpanches in these villages, for instance, belonged to the ST or SC communities. Most, in fact, belonged to social groups that had incomes above the poverty line. 

From One District To The Rest Of The Country

A little digging revealed that this situation isn’t unique to Angul alone. A 2006 study done by Mandar and Kumaran across four states in India, suggested that AWWs are generally reluctant to collect children from lower caste villages. 

Similarly, mothers belonging to discriminated social groups in those villages, are also anxious about how their children will be treated at the AWC and did not avail services. 

Another study done by Jan Sahas in 2009, in Madhya Pradesh, suggests that 59% of  SC children did not go to the AWC because of discrimination, 47% reported that they were not allowed to enter the centre, 42% were made to sit separately, and 52% were not provided with plates, so they brought their own plates from home.

Addressing Discrimination Is The Need Of The Hour

Clearly, even with close to 14 lakh AWCs spread across the country, to cater to the specific needs of women and children, the ground reality is the issue of malnutrition also needs to be seen as a symbol of societal inequalities. There is a critical urgency in the need to address discrimination on multiple levels, through more proactive policy action. Additionally, there is an evident requirement for more data and evidence generation, on the specific issue of discrimination in the ICDS programme, its outreach and impact initiatives. Finally, national-level programmes, such as the Poshan Abhiyaan, must allocate dedicated resources to improve the state of nutrition, specifically among SC and ST communities. 

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