Seasonal agriculture is the mainstay of food as well as livelihood around here, so the local communities, predominantly Dalits and tribals rely heavily on their entitlements under the Public Distribution System (PDS), a government-sponsored food security net for the poor and marginalised populations, writes Dilnaz Boga.
Pandarigota is a quaint village with a population of 305, tucked away in the dense forests of Korchi block in eastern Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. Seasonal agriculture is the mainstay of food as well as livelihood around here, so the local communities, predominantly Dalits and tribals – Madia-Gond and Bhil – rely heavily on their entitlements under the Public Distribution System (PDS), a government-sponsored food security net for the poor and marginalised populations. Till just a few months back, when Bimlabai Adulwar, 40, used to head into Korchi town to pick up her quota of wheat, rice and sugar on the appointed day every month, she would never be sure if she would come back with the promised food grains.
“Going to Korchi would take up nearly an entire day. But the most frustrating part was when after spending so much time and precious money on bus fare one would either find the shop closed or have the shopkeeper announce that he had run out of stock. However, I am happy to say that the situation is quite different now. No family in Pandarigota sleeps hungry these days,” she says with a bright smile.
What has brought on this welcome change to the otherwise tough existence of Adulwar and her fellow villagers? The transformation began when Ami Amchya Arogyasthi (AAA), a local non government organisation, with support from Oxfam India, rolled out a comprehensive intervention aimed at improving the dismal maternal health indicators in Kurkheda and Korchi blocks of Gadchiroli.
Elaborates Preeti Bohidar, Project Officer-Health, Oxfam India, Raipur regional office, “When AAA and Oxfam India started the maternal health programme in 2012, with the support of UK Aid’s Global Poverty Action Fund (GPAF), in 35 villages of Kurkheda and Korchi, we decided to work closely with the community on two aspects – monitoring the availability of quality healthcare services and access to food under the PDS and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Assured and timely rations can have a tremendous positive impact on the health of the mother and child.”
The AAA began by engaging with the Village Health Sanitation & Nutrition Committees (VHSNCs), constituted at the Panchayat level, to enable them to secure people’s rights and entitlements and understand the value of community monitoring.
Says Dr Satish Gogulwar, Chief Functionary, AAA, “When we talk of improving maternal health, empowering the community to claim their rights and actively monitor essential government services is key to bringing about lasting change. Work on strengthening the PDS services started in November 2013 and our field activists have been conducting village meetings and social audits with the complete participation of locals, including the women. Many loopholes in the system have been identified by the people and they are motivated to turn things around.”
Bharti Sonagre, 25, Theme Coordinator-AAA, who has been overseeing the work in the villages and facilitating interactions with the local government officials, gives a low down of ground reality, “In the 10 project villages in Korchi, most families live below poverty line. Some have small farm lands although they barely manage to grow enough to meet their needs. To supplement their diet, they gather fruits and wild greens from the nearby forests. The PDS supply is, therefore, crucial to feeding the household. When we started talking to the VHSNC members and the community, a couple of problems emerged. Firstly, not everyone had a ration card in their name despite having applied for one, and secondly, merely having a ration card did not assure them of their monthly quota.”
One demand that was voiced loud and clear was the need for setting up a fair price shop in every village. “The women told us that they found it very difficult to go all the way to Korchi. The pregnant women and new mothers were particularly burdened by this expedition that turned out to be fruitless most of the time,” adds Sonagre.
Radhika Hundra, 30, a rice farmer in Pandarigota, adds, “We were desperately trying to find a solution to this problem when we met Bharti and other AAA activists who came to our village in early 2014. They informed us about our rights under the PDS and ICDS, which would help us boost our health as well as that of our children. It’s not uncommon to hear of young mothers dying during childbirth in our area and we now know that this is directly linked to our poor, inconsistent diet.”
Since it was the women who had voiced the demand for setting up a ration shop in their own village, it was not difficult to convince them to join the movement. Elaborates Dr Gogulwar, “Women SHGs are getting preference for fair price shop licences since 2012. When we told them about this order, they were keen to get on board. We taught them how to fill up the application form and held trainings to enable them
to run the shop properly. However, an inordinate delay in getting approvals on these applications proved to be a major roadblock.
“So in August 2014, when we organised a ‘jan sunwai’ (public meeting) to deal with issues related to PDS services at the block level, especially those concerning non issuance of ration cards, the SHG women took this opportunity to complain to the tehsil officials about how their PDS shop applications were stuck.”
Incidentally, the men in the community have not had a significant role in this effort, as AAA worked closely with women to promote and empower women SHGs to apply for running fair price shops.
Recalls Sonagre, “Such enthusiastic participation from the tribal women came as a big surprise to the officials. The Tehsildar decided to personally intervene in the matter and a couple of months down the line SHGs like the Sant Krupa Mahila Bachatghat in Pandarigota were running their own outlet. Today, there are six such all-women-run PDS outlets in the Korchi project villages.”
Bimlabai Adulwar, Radhika Hundra, Khembai Miri and 13 others who make up the Sant Krupa Mahila Bachatghat SHG are proud to run the PDS shop in their village. Adulwar stores the grains in her home and keeps the shop open in the evening so that women can finish their work and then come over to collect their ration.