Home mainly to tribal population and to the Naxalite conflict, Gadhchiroli district of Maharashtra presents a plethora of geographical, topographical and logistical barriers for many government sponsored programmes. The ICDS services provided by Anganwadi Centres tends to overlook these social, cultural and geographical contexts, and it thus falls on the district level governance to ensure that the services address these challenges while ensuring last mile connectivity with every household.
The local Panchayat is best suited for this role of monitoring the services while keeping the specific contexts of their villages in mind. These include inculcating local food practices in the meal preparations at Anganwadi Centres or inculcating local cultural practices in community-based events to create awareness around health and nutrition.
The untapped potential of panchayat members was acknowledged by the Sulochana Thapar Foundation. But there are several major challenges in building the capacity of Panchayati Raj institution members, particularly in tribal districts, where even the training given to PRI members about their roles and responsibilities is rudimentary. In order to overcome this, the foundation designed a nutrition fellowship to hand-hold the sarpanchs in Gadhchiroli, to help build their capacities and leverage their positions to lead the panchayats to become suposhit.
Jyotsana from Kojbi village in Gadhchiroli , a first time sarpanch, talks about her journey of becoming a leader in her community. From not being sure about standing for elections to now looking forward to standing for the next term as well, Jyotsana’s journey has been nothing short of transformative. She found the initial training she received after becoming a sarpanch as mostly theoretical with no practical guide to help with her day to day functions or building a vision for the entire village. The regular and consistent hand-holding by the fellows ensured she always had someone to help her through the roadblocks. She’s aware that things will not change overnight, and that change requires an aware and willing leader. She has dedicated most of her time and energy to spread awareness regarding health and nutrition messages in the village. And the results can be seen not just at the community level, but also at the household level with children following sanitation practices at home as well. Two exercises that proved particularly helpful were the Vision Building Exercise and the Gram Panchayat Development Plan allocation exercise.
The Sulochana Thapar Foundation nutrition fellows focused on working in cluster of GPs where they were already working for a couple of years on nutrition interventions. Through the organisational mapping of what an ideal panchayat should be, the PRI members and other employees were also encouraged to identify areas of interests and aspirations for their villages. This was followed by continuous engagement through various activities, like attending Panchayat meetings and Gram Sabhas and bringing PRI members to Anganwadi Centres to interact with the beneficiaries, which led to steps towards improving nutrition in their villages.
Jyotsana, PRI members and other stakeholders -- like Self-Help Groups (SHGs), Gram Sabha members and officials, youth groups and women groups -- were invited to join in the vision building exercise. This involved, among other things, them being asked to imagine what their panchayat should look like and identify developmental goals.
Similarly, under the Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP) exercise, Sulochana Thapar Foundation trained Panchayat members in different aspects of development management, like how to prioritise and budget, and focus on low-cost activities that could lead them to their goals.
These activities not only helped Jyotsana understand her work but also built her self-confidence. She now realises the full potential as well the responsibilities of her role as the Sarpanch. She has become a more proactive leader with a problem-solving approach. She has been working relentlessly to fix the water availability issue in her village and has also gotten new RO installed in the Anganwadi Centre. She has streamlined the delivery of services in her Panchayat and fixed a monitoring process for herself, other PRI members and all Front Line workers. While acknowledging the support she receives from the Nutrition Fellows, she is confident about being to sustain this even if the fellow leave.
Jyotsana’s journey is an example of what a little push and sustained support can help achieve. It’s also a proof of what a motivated Sarpanch can achieve for an entire village. With cases of malnourished children already going down in her village, Jyotsana is an inspiration for not just her neighbouring villages but Panchayats across the country.
(Dristhi is a Research and Content Development Officer, and Binu Anand is national team leader at WeCan-IPE Global)