Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - The emergency feeding does not come to a halt any more on Sundays in Silva Gram Panchayat in Komna block of Odisha's Nuapada district. It all started when ward panch, Sabita Pradhan, decided to raise her voice. She asked anganwadi workers a question: "Where will the children of poor families eat on Sundays?"
Starvation is common and rampant in Nuapada district and Komna block reflects in a microcosm all the problems that have plagued this starvation-prone region over several decades. With 78 per cent of its population belonging to below poverty line (BPL) families, Nuapada figures in the list of the poorest and most backward regions of India and food security has been a big worry here. The emergency feeding programme, one of the several initiatives of the Odisha government to address this concern, was aimed to provide food security to the old, the infirm, the children and the indigent, by giving them one cooked meal a day throughout the year through the network of anganwadis.
Like many other panchayats of Nuapada district, the anganwadi at Sabita's village was also plagued by irregular food supply. Children were the worst affected. The quantity of food served was less than the amount stipulated in the government order. And no food was being served on Sundays. The Hunger Project, of which this writer is the director, had trained over 90,000 elected women representatives in eight states, including Odisha - women like Sabita - in governance norms and procedures. Sabita used her new learnings to urge the other elected women representatives of her panchayat to send a written complaint to the Right to Food Court, thereby setting off a chain of events. The court ordered the Secretary, Women & Child Development Department, to look into the matter. This was then put before the District Collector. The Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) was asked to take strict action and, as a result, today most of the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) centres here are functioning properly.
Having struggled to raise families of their own, women panchayat members are eager to ensure no child goes to sleep hungry. Over the centuries, women have played a crucial role in ensuring food security. Their multiple roles as food producers, keepers of traditional knowledge, food processors, food preparers and food providers are well documented. But poverty, coupled with social marginalisation and other vulnerabilities, have pushed many families (read women) in the rural hinterland to lower their dietary and nutritional intake, and become increasingly dependent on the public distribution system (PDS) and other state sponsored programmes such as the ICDS and Midday Meal Scheme.
When Sabita and her one million other women colleagues in 2,40,452 Gram Panchayats (GPs) across the country won the panchayat election they stood for, they inherited the monumental challenge of providing food and nutritional security not only to their families but also to their constituencies. That too at a time when agricultural output has performed well below expectation. While several food-based schemes have been implemented as per the recommendations of the Eleventh Plan, even a brief stay in any village will reveal the high level of leakages, the exclusion and the inclusion errors in beneficiary listing and the poor quality of the foodgrains received. Is food security, therefore, the outcome of only production and distribution decisions? Women sarpanchs and panchs say that good governance plays an equally critical role in ensuring food security and curbing starvation deaths in remote regions.
Take Bidar in Karnataka, which falls in India's list of 100 worst districts. Out of the 18 PDS shops surveyed in 20 odd villages, only three were functioning properly. Rates were not displayed; shopkeepers added transportation and other charges. Bidar can ill afford this breakdown of service delivery as it registers the lowest per capita income in the state of Karnataka. However, ward panch Sudha Mohan of Koppa rural GP in Chikmangalur district argues that though profiteering is common, regular monitoring and action by the panchayat helps. She should know. She used her authority to issue a notice to the shop owner in her village and demanded he keep the ration shop open at fixed times to ensure supply of foodgrains to daily wagers. She even sent samples of adulterated grain to the concerned food inspector, executive officer and tehsildar. Her initiative has improved the quality of material supplied at this ration shop.
In Madhya Pradesh (MP), the number of underweight children under three years had actually increased from 50.8 per cent in 1999 (National Family Health Survey-2) to 57.9 per cent in 2005 (NFHS-3). In addition, more than 10 lakh children face severe wasting.
Despite this, sanctioned quantities of food do not reach the Ladwani Panchayat in Samnapur block, where 46 children between 3-6 years visit the local anganwadi regularly. During one of their monitoring visits, ward members Sona Bai and Kunta Bai noticed the children were being given very small quantities of a local sweet known as 'sonpapri'. Both women reported this to the department of Women and Child Development after which immediate remedial actions were taken. The slightly built Sona Bai is furious. "I did not get enough food as a child, so I remained short. If children today eat properly, they won't fall ill. I don't understand where all the food stuff goes," she says.
Her sentiments are echoed by other elected women from other parts of the country who explain that corruption is extensive and many deserving BPL families are being deliberately deprived. In Bihar, 18 BPL families approached Mainamanti Devi, Up-Mukhiya (deputy chief), Sulemanpur Panchayat in Jehanabad district - a district that has made national news for starvation deaths - to inquire about their ration cards.
Mainamanti recalls, "Without ration cards they might as well be dead. I took up the matter with the panchayat secretary and the male mukhiya. They had colluded together and not released these cards. When I threatened to sit in protest along with the 18 families, the ration cards were immediately handed over to me."
Sarpanch Premlata Raita of R. Udayagiri block in Odisha's Gajapati district agrees with the need to be pro-active, "People are corrupt and want to make money at the cost of the poor. My role is to constantly monitor and continuously update the citizens of their rights and entitlements."
But while women Panchayat members taking great interest in ensuring the proper implementation of schemes related to issues of hunger, they also know that tackling only the issue of nutrition is not enough. Take the example of Saraswati Devi of Manyava gram panchayat in Jehanabad. She mounted a spirited campaign against child marriage. Saraswati Devi reveals, "A 12-year-old girl was being married off in our locality. It would have meant early pregnancy and a lifelong battle with poor health. I am thankful that I was able to stop that marriage with the help of other women panchs."
Her words reflect a deep realisation that issues like child marriage and discrimination against girls are closely related to malnutrition, stunted growth, and reduced productivity in later life and that good governance requires interventions at various levels. These grassroots women leaders are in for the long haul. India has benefited, and will continue to benefit, greatly from their efforts.
(The writer is Director, The Hunger Project.)
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( © Women's Feature Service)