Nevasa: The largest district in Maharashtra, Ahmednagar is steeped in medieval history, spiritual fervor, and is well-known as the epicenter of the sugar mills cooperative movement in the region. It’s where the visible remnants of a great medieval period sultanate– on which the district is named – comfortably share the glory with the legacy of revered saints like Sai Baba of Shirdi, and Meher Baba of Meherabad.
In Nevasa, a block that is famed for being the place where the Marathi poet-saint, Dnyaneshwar penned Dnyaneshwari, his commentary on the Bhagwad Gita, there is a small hamlet located near the Nagar-Aurangabad highway that has created quite a stir by coming up with unique ways to safeguard the health of its women and children. Here, good karma comes together with a wholesome nutrition to bring the message of good health right to the people’s doorstep. And at the center of this endeavor are the two anganwadis and the frontline health workers employed there who service the 4,000 residents.
A basket hangs from the roof of the Anganwadi that is centrally located in Bhanashivare village. However, there’s more to this humble contraption that meets the eye—it’s a symbol of the camaraderie that the villagers share, even as it guarantees a hearty fare for each little one that enters this government-run crèche. Just as most rural homes set a basket in their kitchen to store bread, cooked vegetable, curd, and other food articles; similarly, this Anganwadi has placed one, locally referred to as “akshaypatra”, at its entrance where residents, depending on what they can spare, donate a variety of vegetables, pulses and other food items.
Every day, Usha Ganesh, the Anganwadi worker in-charge, rummages through the food items in the basket to prepare hot meals. She rustles up a delicious one-dish meal of khichdi with vegetables to feed the hungry kids. She says, “The concept of akshaypatra is deeply rooted in local custom. People feel an emotional connect, so they readily contribute legumes, dals, vegetables, herbs like coriander and fruits. We use the fresh produce and rations to make khichdi; there is quality nutrition in this rice-and-dal preparation.”
Such has been the influence of this move that this year, during the festival of Makar Sankrant in January, when the Anganwadi worker requested women to give their holy offering of fruits, vegetables, grains, sugarcane, and jujube to the Anganwadi instead of the temple, they loved the idea. After the haldi-kumkum ceremony, they put their offerings into the akshaypatra. Instead of wasting food – excessive temple offerings often end up in the garbage – or simply feeding it to the animals, the women set a fine example.
In a sense, this simple innovative idea that borrows from an old-time practice has not just strengthened the relationship between the people and the Anganwadi it has also stepped up community engagement and created a sense of ownership in the movement for ensuring better health for the future generations.
At the other Anganwadi, too, tradition and folklore has been employed by Anganwadi worker, Alka Ashok Pandit to spread the word on mother and childcare and maintaining cleanliness and hygiene in the home and neighborhood. Legend has it that Sant Gadge Maharaj, a mendicant-saint and social reformer wandered around villages across the Amravati region in Maharashtra promoting sanitation. Inspired by him, Pandit has innovated and composed keertan songs on the importance of breastfeeding, hygiene and nutrition. For instance, to talk about breastfeeding she has adapted a composition of Saint Dnyaneshwar-‘Amruta chigodi, aaichya dudhala… (mother’s milk, as sweet as nectar)’ and along with a choir of local health workers and volunteers, she takes this important message to the women.
She says, “We wanted to publicise the value of better nutrition and good health practices among people by using keertans and we have been able to fulfill our objective. I adapt local songs to share these ideas. Just like a cow feeds her calves with her own milk so must mothers—we catch their attention through such descriptive examples. When we talk to them using their own cultural references and practices, the results are better.” The women, too, have responded to this innovative initiative and most of them are now well versed with concepts like “kangaroo care” and the ‘breastfeeding corner” at the Anganwadi, among other things. During the Poshan Pakhwada, a nutrition awareness-building fortnight observed from March 8 to 22, to mark the first anniversary of the POSHAN Abhiyan, the villagers renewed their commitment to securing the health of their women and children by continually engaging with the Anganwadi workers and participating in government initiatives.
—Text by Satish Deshpande, translated from the original Marathi by Chinmay Dighe