It was perhaps the first time that two-year-old Amit had been separated from his mother. In this red-roofed anganwadi in the quake-hit village of Lutavadar in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Amit, like many other children of his age had burst into tears and was yelling to get back to his mother. His tears were replaced by a beaming smile as soon as he caught sight of the colourful toys the anganwadi staff had left in front of him.
Village anganwadis, or 'courtyard kindergartens', serve as community centres for children under the age of five, adolescent girls, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers. Each anganwadi provides health education, immunization, nutrition and preschool education to around 1,000 people.
In the front yard of this Red Cross-built facility, Amit's five-year-old sister is entertaining herself on the merry-go-round, while their older brother waits for his turn on the slide. Their mother and other parents watch over the children from beneath a large, sacred pipal tree, as the sound of laughter and cheers fills the village.
The building - designed and built according to local practices and standards - is made with earthquake resistant structures approved by the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority. "In most cases, we have involved the authorities and the communities in identifying the best location and utilized local resources from the villages in the construction for easy maintenance and community ownership," says Laxman Chettry, Construction Coordinator of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The Lutavadar anganwadi was funded by the Guadeloupe Red Cross. "The people of Lutavadar have come to know that the International Red Cross Movement knows no boundaries. Many villagers have in fact become interested in this small Caribbean island," Laxman adds.
By last December, the rural district of Rajkot had 29 new neighbourhood anganwadis, built by the Indian Red Cross and International Federation, with support from sister Red Cross Societies in Canada, France, Germany, Guadeloupe, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands and Singapore. These anganwadis have been handed over to the local authorities along with furniture, equipment, toys and recreational facilities.
Many anaganwadis, as well as other health facilities, were destroyed by the devastating earthquake that struck Gujarat in January 2001. Those centres that were able to continue operating after the disaster were forced to work out of tents.
"This is a big stride that the Red Cross has initiated to advance health care in our community," says Mrs S T Karetha, Child Development Programme Officer of Rajkot district.
The Indian Red Cross, in cooperation with the International Federation and two partner Societies, are building health facilities and implementing community-based health programmes across the quake-affected districts Kutch, Rajkot, Surrendranagar and Jamnagar in Gujarat. Over 270 health facilities, including anganwadis, primary health care centres, dispensaries and sub-health centres, will be completed by the end of this year.
"The construction of these facilities is an integral part of the integrated health programme to improve rural health in Gujarat," says Dr J Ganthimathi, the deputy secretary general of the Indian Red Cross for medical issues.
The Indian Red Cross has been training village-based volunteers, traditional birth attendants and anganwadi staff. "These government-run anganwadis will provide an excellent base for the Red Cross to develop and sustain our community based health activities', Dr Ganthimathi says.
"Infant and maternal mortality rates are still high in Gujarat. A lot more needs to be done to address mother and child care in the rural communities. Children and women will stay as our focal points,' she adds.