A few kilometers outside Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I visited a Mahila Shakti Kendra about a year ago. I was amazed at what I saw and heard. In a community building, right in the center of a buzzing market, was a decent sized room. There were info graphics on the wall, a group of women of all ages having a charcha. These women seemed very informed and empowered,as they knew what they were entitled to and how they could avail their rights. Their confidence also came from the fact that if they didn’thave the knowledge about a particular entitlement, they could always ask the two women who ran the center, who belonged to their own community. This Kendra was a vibrant space, which gave women the camaraderie of each other. The two community women who ran the center didn’t have a fancy computer or tablet, they had registers which they religiously filled and felt extremely responsible to all the women who came into this center seeking their help.
To clarify that this has nothing to do with the Kendras announced by Mr. Arun Jaitley on Feb 1st as part of the Budget 2017.This help center in Gujarat was run by an NGO in a poor peri urban block. It was not part of an Anganwadi Center (AWC), but a community building that was accessible to most of the women who needed this service. I remember asking one of the women working at the Kendra, why this was not part of an AWC, which seemed like the most obvious thing at the time. This is what she had to say “ Most often AWCs are not accessible as they are very far from where most women live. Also the AWC is only open for a few hours but women should be able to visit the help center at their convenience.”
The woman’s response made a lot of sense and of course her experience with the community shone through. I am afraid that the Finance Minister’s proposal and allocation of INR 500 Cr to the Mahila Shakti Kendra for 14 lakh AWCs failed to convince at so many levels.
The Government wants this Kendra associated with an AWC to empower women by providing them with convergent support services of skill development, digital literacy, nutrition and health. This sounds like a dream project, but before I go on to the measly amount allocated, lets talk about the status of Anganwadi Centers across the country and the over burdened frontline workers (Anganwadi worker and Anganwadi helper). I remember visiting some AWCs in Odisha as part of a project and unless the AWC was not taken up by some development partner or run by an NGO, I can safely say that most don’t function very well and are not accountable to the women they serve. One instance, in a tribal hamlet in Odisha, the children along with the Anganwadi worker were sitting outside the AWC, out of fear that the wall might collapse any moment. The poor lady not only had to look after and feed these children who were aged between 3-6 years but she also had to fill out the 13 registers that is mandated, all this work to be done without a roof over her head.
This is not a one off incident, I am sure there are similar stories from almost all the States in the country where the word “operational” for an AWC can be misleading. In 2015 the Ministry of Women & Child Development reported that less than 50% of AWCs have a toilet facility across the country and over 2 lakh posts for functionaries related to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) are vacant. This is only a glimpse of the state of infrastructure and human resources at the AWC. And I am not even getting into the quality aspect of service delivery. Given this scenario, the government should be fixing what is broken rather than creating yet another “feel good” programme, without giving a clear picture on how and who is going to run these centers in an already messed up set-up.
The Finance Minister also spoke about the Mahila Shakti Kendras being a place of various services coming together. It is no secret that convergence is much needed but there are some rare cases of success. So how is the Government going to assure this, when convergence initiatives like the Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committees under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) don’t function like they should despite being a sub-committee of the gram panchayat.
Its almost like these kendras are a silver bullet that will magically empower and capacitate women in rural areas. And given the pittance of INR 3571 allocated per Kendra, I am quite sure not much can be achieved. By giving schemes powerful and politically relevant names, does not make them effective, they need to be thought through so that they are useful to needy and poor beneficiaries. But by now aren’t we all used to the shenanigans of this current Government.
Neha Saigal, currently a development consultant with projects on women and child rights.