There is very little that distinguishes the hamlet of Madri from the innumerable others that dot southern Rajasthan. This is a region where the Aravallis make their presence felt in gnarled hillocks, where water is scarce and where the land yields its harvests grudgingly.
People here, including toddlers, know well the edge of hunger. So when Ranjani Ashok, 54, who runs the anganwadi in this village – perched on the border that separates Dungarpur and Banswara districts – serves her charges their small helping of ‘kichidi’ (gruel of rice and lentil), it disappears in a trice. The children in Ranjani’s anaganwadi are not picky eaters. Unlike well-fed kids from prosperous city neighbourhoods, these children eat pretty much whatever is served to them, unless they happen to have a fever.
“In most homes children are given a roti or two, with barely any dal or vegetable to go with it,” observes the spry anganwadi worker. Of late, Ranjani has also started giving the anganwadi children a nutritious food supplement as take home rations. “It’s actually a mix of soya bean flour, channa dal flour, wheat and a little sugar, and the kids seem to like it,” she smiles.
This nutritious supplement has its own story to tell. It comes to Ranjani’s anganwadi from a factory in Banswara, run by a local women Self Help Group (SHG). In fact, it reaches 7,000 children and around 3,000 pregnant and lactating mothers every month through a network of 172 government-run anganwadis. The Banswara unit, which was set up in September 2011, now produces one metric ton of this supplement every day.
The model is a useful one since it combines two potentially transformational interventions – a regular nutritional supplement for children aged between 6 to 36 months and pregnant and lactating mothers, as well as the generation of sustainable employment for rural women coming from poor households.
The supplement, which goes under the label of ‘RajNutriMix’, has been developed by the World Food Programme (WFP) in partnership with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and in consultation with the Government of Rajasthan. It complies with the Supreme Court’s guidelines on the promotion of decentralised production of supplementary food for supply under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) as well as the Apex Court’s stipulations on the daily intake for vulnerable women and children. Under this project, a take home ration of 990 grams of RajNutriMix per week for pregnant women and lactating mothers as well as severely and acutely malnourished children and 822 grams per week for all other children below the age of 3 years, is provided.
The raw materials for the supplement are procured locally and the production process is completely mechanised. They are first cleaned in a specially designed unit and then roasted. Grinding comes next, followed by the final mixing, with essential micro-nutrients added at this stage. For the convenience of the beneficiaries, the ration for the entire month is given in one go, as one sealed bag. Each of these bags has four sealed weekly ration packets.
“We discovered that producing this supplement is a perfect fit because it addresses two urgent needs: An uninterrupted supply of nutritive food and a regular source of income for poor rural households. The women working in the unit can, through this process, earn at least what they would on a MGNREGA site, and that too for 300 days in a year,” says Dr Nikhil Raj of WFP, who coordinates this project.
One of the aims of the intervention is, in fact, to consolidate the local SHG network and get women members to go beyond the usual micro-lending or the making of agarbattis, pickles and papads. This seems to have been achieved in the Banswara unit. Today, the 12 “factory managers/workers”, all members of the local Shitala Mata Women’s Self Help Group, supervise and run the operations of the unit.
These are ordinary rural Rajasthani women with just a few years of schooling. Most are aged anywhere between 30 and 40 years, although there is an 18-year-old and a 60-year-old on the team. They have undergone three rounds of training, and were involved in this process from its inception. In fact, they even observed the machinery of the plant being installed. They are capable of procuring the best raw materials locally, keeping accounts, managing machines, maintaining registers and attendance rolls, as well as making wage calculations and doing the banking. Wages, incidentally, are deposited directly into banks to avoid any possibility of funds being siphoned away.
“The change is striking, when you consider that these women had barely stepped outside their village. Their status within their own circles has grown immeasurably. Hands are washed, scarves are worn, gloves are used. They have succeeded in maintaining a system of quality control that has amazed even the lab technicians to whom we send samples of the material produced,” observes Raj. The National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories is involved in testing the quality of the material produced.
The women have now started dreaming big. They know their plant has come to them in the form of a grant, so they have learnt to work out depreciation costs and address breakdowns promptly. They realise that if they slip up, if their product gets rejected in terms of quality, the whole project could be in jeopardy. So they make sure that all procedures are followed and everybody is on board the effort. And just to make sure this happens almost everyone is trained in basic numeracy and administrative functions and can handle every task on the shop floor. These responsibilities are rotated to avoid drudgery, prevent hierarchies from forming and to create a cohesive work environment. Village women they may be, but each one of them now has the mien of a successful entrepreneur.
The Banswara unit is the first among seven units that WFP, GAIN and the Government of Rajastan have planned. These will come up at other sites in Banswara, as also in the adjoining districts of Dungarpur, Pali and Udaipur, all of which have been identified as food insecure ones. There are challenges of course, and training women to run the units will take effort. But once each unit takes off, its benefits are manifold.
Explains Mihoko Tamamura, Representative and Country Director, WFP India, “Food insecurity impacts not just the body but the brain and general neuro-physical growth. We also know that if children don’t get the right nutrients before they are two, they will never be able to catch up. This is why we see the Banswara initiative as an important one.”
Meanwhile, in Ranjani’s anganwadi, far away in Madri village, Sita Devi – almost three years old – stretches her thin arms to be picked up. Large tears form in her saucer-like eyes set in a translucently pale face. The daughter of a farm labourer, malnutrition has already put its footprint on her body.
Sita needs to be picked up, in every sense of the term – and quickly. And delivering proper nutrition to her is the crucial first step.