The mitanin program of the Chhattisgarh government was initially focused primarily on health to prevent a major public health crisis (read more here). As the health indicators of the state improved, the focus has recently shifted to psychosocial and holistic development of kids. For this purpose, a tool was designed by the SHRC with the help of my organisation Centre for Learning Resources (CLR). At the same time, this component was introduced in the 18th stage of the mitanin training. I work in evaluation of this program. It gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of time with mitanins. The past six months in the field have rendered me with lot of bittersweet memories of these interactions, which I often cherish and miss now.
My interactions with the group of ladies involved friendly banter on why I wear only one payal (actually an anklet) and concern if I lost one in the village. One trainer praises me for being able to bear the heat and walk at a good pace within the hamlets, despite coming from a big town. Well, she doesn’t know the story of two consecutive painful UTIs during my initial days in the searing heat of the field. Ditching her Dusshera celebration, one mitanin waits with me for my team so that I don’t feel lonely. One of them asks me whether I would marry in Chhattisgarh. She volunteers to find a guy for me. They discuss with me how they want to live in the cities as it is convenient to have all the services, while I muse over how I always wanted to stay in an idyllic green village. There are mitanins who feed home cooked food for lunch and gift us with fresh jam (guava), and sitafal (custard apple) from their farms. At one home, I cook puris with them in the kitchen, catching onto some village gossip. At another, I try my hands on jata (chakki or stonemill) and at yet another, I take part in painting the mud house for Diwali. We meet a trainer who mistakenly thought that we all had come from Delhi to evaluate them and shouts at the mitanins under anxiety. A mitanin complains to us about the trainer who would ask for fruits or vegetables each time she visits.
One mitanin in Surguja takes me to visit her daughter who was very good in academics but had a condition in which she lacked ovaries. She enquires if I had some contacts in Raipur so that her daughter could be treated. She anticipates that one day someone would be impressed by her hard work and help her daughter. As we had finished our work early, she waits with us till others were done. She gets little or no money but still she doesn’t let me pay for this new snacks ‘Babaji ka Thullu’ which I wanted to try. While my colleague is busy following some Ramdev style yoga, this lady shows me a manual about first aid, which they received at the training. She tells me the story of Thinthini pathar, a local tourist spot, where when you take a stone to hit this rock, it would produce a ringing metallic sounds (to know the complete ancient wedding story, contact me!) She discusses her struggle with me. It strikes me how the Mitanin program had actually empowered the women in the community, though that was not the main objective. At a time when it was thought that women should work within the confines of their home, many mitanins joined the program. They were ridiculed and disrespected. They weren’t paid by the government. But as they persevered, their work gained recognition. Many young girls of the village now wish to be like her.
In few villages, mitanins would sit down in a circle and demonstrate the mitanin clap. The spirit is unbeatable. I have seen them come for meetings keeping aside important activities like building of new home, pothai (method of renewing mud houses using cowdung), and even personal tragedy within family. The level of dedication and commitment is nonpareil.
I meet a mitanin who wants to show us her new home. She is insistent on it. She takes us, shows us all her rooms, and introduces us to her daughter, who very skilfully uses the sickle in her tender hands to peel off the sugarcane. We savour the sugarcanes while patriotic songs blare from the nearby Panchayat bhawan which celebrates the Mitanin diwas (Mitanin day) today. We reach just in time to listen to these wonderful ladies singing motivational songs with messages like ‘nasha na kariyo, nasha zahar hai’ (didactic song against addiction). Soon, the festival starts with Saraswati puja. As the sky darkens, we thank them and ask for our departure. They apply tilak on our foreheads and present us with shawl, and coconut which were actually meant for the mitanins in appreciation of their work. We leave touched by the act. At home, I receive a call from the block coordinator inviting me to stay at her home next time, and visit them without work purpose.
One strong trainer tells me how she is self-sufficient financially, and isn’t scared of losing her job, how she raised her voice against a man who was practising corruption. She also narrates the story of her battle to be a good daughter in law that restricted her from being the sportsperson she was in school. She did not let her own daughter in law face similar experience. She gave her full freedom and support to pursue her dreams and now they are more like friends.
There was an old local tribal adage- a tree has many flowers but few fruits. Such was the level of acceptance to infant mortality in Chhattisgarh. In fact, the child was not named or the birth announced publicly till 6th day in fear that he/she might die. It is this group of ladies who could shake this off and make every child death preventable. Recently, few financial incentives were initiated in the program through which the mitanins get a paltry sum for each delivery in a government hospital, or detection of cases of falciparum malaria. Now, few villagers eye them with distrust. Their motivation is associated with money. Moreover, issues of non-payment or increase in emolument created dissatisfaction amongst them. The workload on mitanins has increased as they are involved in most other activities of panchayat members, anganwadi workers, and ANMs (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife). Some of this work now affects their existing livelihoods and this is not compensated for. I feel that the demand of increase in financial incentives is somehow justified. I wonder how something as insignificant as pieces of paper or metal coins, having no consumptive value in themselves, could substantially affect the structure of a successful program. I ponder over how barter system could serve the world better than the current form of money. Maybe a world in which honest gratitude could tantamount to a medico’s consultation fee..a world where sense of community is stronger than the power of currency. The challenges are grave but then the resolute eyes of the mitanin at the Thinthini pathar manifest in my mind..and I know that future isn’t as bleak as it seems.