Women Empowerment & Fighting Malnutrition

Varalakshmi Center for Women Empowerment, Balwadi & Subha

Varalakshmi Center for Women Empowerment

This center is the raison d’etre of the Institute. The center is named after the founder Ms. Varalakshmi Rao (later Swami Vishwarupananda). Since its inception the major concern of the institute has been empowerment of women, which is a very broad and all-encompassing concept. Skill development and income generation, tackling malnutrition are some of the major areas of focus for this center.

The institute provided seamless education from pre-primary (nursery) to graduation from an Industrial Training Institute. Due to reasons beyond its control the institute had to suspend the industrial training institute. This was substituted with a six months Jan Siksha Sansthan certification course followed by production and product training since2006.

Income generation programmes concentrate in two areas – FOOD with an emphasis on tackling malnutrition and anaemia amongst women and children and TEXTILE with income generation through sale of products under the brand name “SUBHA – a new dawn for women.

SSMI has built models that need to be evaluated and replicated.

Transparent and community based delivery of nutrition – the Jehangirpuri Model

The model is named after a slum located in West Delhi where it was first experimented. The model has been tried and tested under both the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the Mid-Day Meals Scheme (MDMS). Both the schemes are Central Govt. sponsored schemes, catering to over a hundred and twenty million beneficiaries under ICDS and a hundred million students under MDMS. Despite such an extensive programme spread over more than six decades, the levels of mal-nutrition and anemia are at unacceptable levels, even below a large number of low income countries. Obviously, there are serious fault lines.

SSMI has concentrated on one of the major fault line – the last mile problem – delivery of nutrition. The Jehangirpuri Model makes the women from the beneficiary community the principle stakeholders and ensures transparency.

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Creating livelihood – from training to income generation

Most skill development programnmes are an end in themselves - skill people and let them trade the skill for employment or engage in self-employment ventures. SSMI believes that training should lead to income. This requires that production and marketing become an integral part of training, since income can only be generated when there is production that is sold. Marketing requires that the product is fashion contemporary.

After providing basic textile skills (under the Jan Siksha Sansthan certification of the Ministry of HRD. Govt. of India) those with skill and aptitude are provided production and product training. SSMI has set up a design center. SSMI markets its produce under a brand, appropriately named – “SUBHA – a new dawn for women”

Food production is at its infancy. SSMI campus has been given a license to manufacture by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.

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The Jehangirpuri Model

The best and the safest method of delivery of nutrition is through cooked food. Cooked food is not universal, but location specific. Cooking is a process where food safety must be ensured. All these and other considerations make up the last mile problem that seem simple, but are very complex. SSMI is firmly committed to delivery of nutrition through cooked food.

The other cardinal beliefs of SSMI are:

  • Women are both the victim of mal-nutrition as well as the means of resolving the problem
  • Effective involvement of the women from the beneficiary community can bring transparency to the system.
  • Hunger is co-terminus with mal-nutrition. For example, the study of MDMS showed that 82 percent of the children coming to school, came on an empty stomach and that Mid-Day Meals is the major and in some cases even the only meal of a child. Similarly, it has been observed that for reasons of family hunger, pregnant and lactating women share the supplementary nutrition given to them.

There are basically three ways of delivering nutrition:

  • Through centralized kitchens that are semi-mechanical. They minimize employment, particularly women employment and maximize investment.
  • Through decentralized kitchens where under ICDS in every agnawadi the anganwadi worker or as is the case under MDMS a paid cook process the food and deliver the food, Thus there is a seamless continuity between the policy maker and the final point of delivery all informed by rigid government procedures and corruption.
  • Through decentralized kitchens were the women from the beneficiary community are in control of the delivery system and kitchens are located in the midst of the beneficiary community in order to maximize transparency.
  • Cooking food is an entrepreneurial activity, contractors masquerading as NGOs understand this. With positive policy measures and incentives women from the beneficiary community could become entrepreneurs by setting up micro-enterprises to deliver cooked food under ICDS and MDMS analogues to Ajeevika, Kutabashree. Funds should be available from the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh and Mahila Bank etc.
  • This implies training and building support structures like

Centralized and decentralized delivery

The order of the Hon’ble Supreme Court clearly mandates decentralized kitchen listed as 3 above: “The contractors shall not be used for supply of nutrition in Anganwadis and preferably ICDS funds shall be spent by making use of village communities, self-help groups and Mahila Mandals for buying of grains and preparation of meals.” (Order dated 7/10/2004 in CWP no. 176/2001 – Point No. 3) This order was delivered in the context of ICDS.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court’s Judgement of Nov. 2001 defined the legal status of MDMS as “Mid-Day meal, in the form of cooked food, having the scheduled calories and proteins, shall be the legal right of the children studying in Govt. and aided Govt. schools” The scheduled calories and protein are defined in Schedule II of the National Food Security Act 2013. This Act also prohibits centralized kitchens in rural areas.

The table below gives a comparison between centralized and decentralized models of delivery of cooked food:

Centralized delivery of cooked food
Capital intensive
Minimizes human intervention
Isolated and out of bounds for the beneficiaries
Covers large areas and food travels long distances tropical temperatures Safety depends on time the food travels
Decentralized delivery of cooked food
Within reach of SHG funding
Maximizes Women’s employment
Maximizes transparency by being located amidst beneficiaries
Food travels minimum distance – food remains hot and safe

Anybody who has used a refrigerator would understand what the relationship is. The purpose of the refrigerator is to ensure that food is never left in the danger zone of 60 to 5 degrees centigrade. Centralized kitchens work on large volumes and therefore they have to deliver over a very large catchment area.

Given the distances, the road conditions and traffic chaos this implies that hot cooked meals have to travel over a long distance hot cooked meals travel over long distances in the danger zone. The rule in respect to similar schemes in Australia is “If perishable food has been in the temperature danger zone for 2 to 4 hours consume it immediately. After 4 hours throw it out.”

Characteristics of the Jehangirpuri Model:

  • Transparency: Place the kitchen in the midst of the beneficiary community and involve the community. In Jehangirpuri the houses are on 25 Sq. ft. and SSMI placed its kitchen there so that it is in the midst of the beneficiaries.
  • Employment: Employ women from amongst the beneficiary community. Form them into self- help groups and train them to eventually take over the management.
  • Technology: Chose technologies that generate maximum women’s employment but minimize drudgery. For example, mechanize potato pealing but not chopping carrots.
  • Safety: Quality food and employee safety. Minimizing the time between production and consumption. Follow food industry in matters of choice of chemicals and detergents or practices relating to fumigation.
  • Economies of scale: The size of the kitchen is limited by the size of the houses of the beneficiaries. However, the kitchens should be economically viable for the women to operate a micro enterprise, something between the centralized kitchens and each anganwadi or school having ist own kitchen.

Study of Mid-Day Meals (school lunch) Scheme

SSMI conducted a one year study of Mid- Day Meals Scheme in District Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh. The study was comprehensive. It covered the following areas:

  • Nutrition
  • Health
  • Food Safety
  • Human Resource Development
  • Participation of women
  • Community participation and campaign
  • Improvement of kitchens and Zero energy chambers
  • Fuel efficiency and energy conservation
  • Corrective measures

Important recommendations in a nutshell

  • MDMS must be made compliant with the Schedule II of the National Food Security Act 2013 and the Food Safety and Standards Act 2003. Data shows that the present compliance levels are rather low.
  • There is a need for co-ordination and convergence between MDMS – ICDS – RBSK right up to the taluka/ tehsil/ mandal level.
  • Provide safe working environment - free of smoke and carbon monoxide. Currently most kitchen using firewood are smoke filled endangering the lives of the women cooks.
  • Improve the remuneration of cooks The present rate of payment of Rs. 1000 per month is abysmally low.
  • Enact legislation and regulation specifically designed to regulate MDMS. Legislation specific to School Lunch programme has been enacted in countries as diverse as USA and Brazil.
  • Conduct surveys to determine the extent of hunger amongst children and its relationship with cognition. To tackle the problem of children coming to school on an empty stomach, split the Mid-Day meals into snack and mid-day meal.
  • Design Standard operating practices (SOPs) and Protocols for delivery of nutrition and food safety, backed with regular Training of the cooks and all those involved in the administration of the scheme
  • Develop mechanisms for early detection of child illness and train teachers and parents to detect ailments.
  • In collaboration with ICDS design nutrition and stimulation packages to improve the cognitive ability of children so that they are at par with normal children by school admission time.
  • Mandatory health check-up for cooks
Food Safety
  • Based on the food safety surveys develop standard designs/ protocols to ensure compliance with the law.
  • Provide investment required for making MDMS compliant with FSSA
Human Resource
  • Design multilayer Training and Capacity building programmes to be conducted on a continuous basis in order to make MDMS professional. Design capacity building of women in general and cooks in particular, could have a multiplier effect in spreading awareness about nutrition
  • Train School and teachers to be creatively involved in the MDMS. For example, the idea of the Chinna Doctor and similarly a meal monitor would be both motivational and effective in peer level learning of concepts of hygiene
Involvement of women
  • Develop scheme that are viable for women of the beneficiary community to run MDMS as a micro-enterpris
Community Participation
  • Design campaigns in local language using local idiom to
    • Make people aware of their children’s entitlement under MDMS and NFSA
    • Aware of nutrition and effects of mal-nutrition
    • Enthuse community participation
Kitchen infrastructure
  • Design and setup model kitchens in rural areas where cooks, SMC members and others could be trained on SOPs, food safety and hygiene.
  • Kitchens need to be redesigned and augmented to ensure separation between cooking, washing and storage areas. Stoves, instead of three stones and a vessel, that eliminate smoke and enable clean disposal of ash.
  • Install Zero Energy Cooling Chambers for vegetable storage.
Fuel Efficiency and Energy Conservation
  • Smokeless chullas should be mandatory since high levels of carbon monoxide in the smoke endanger the health of the cooks and the students
  • A national survey of available bio fuels along with district mapping needs to be undertaken. Based on that suitable cook stove needs to be identified and installed. For this funds should be allocated in order to conserve fire-wood as an ecological imperative (rewarded by carbon credits)
  • Trials should be conducted on use of solar energy in conjunction with cook stoves.

From Training to income generation

SUBHA– is a brand name of the micro- enterprise, launched by SSMI, for the production of food items and textiles.

Today more than ever, women need to find their own path to financial freedom. SSMI was one of the 96 NGOs that partnered with the Govt. of NCT of Delhi to operate a Gender Resource Center. One of the activities of the center was to provide vocational training to women from low income families. Training was certified by the Jan Siksha Sansthan that is part of the Ministry of HRD Govt. of India. SSMI was providing, two batches of 50 women, six months training in cutting and tailoring.

In keeping with its tradition, SSMI launched a programme to take training to income. SSMI provides 6 months training in cutting and tailoring to two batches of 50 women each. Select trainees from Jan Sikhsha Sansthan certificate are provided an opportunity to enhance their skills through a three stage participatory process namely ‘learning by doing, learning by producing and learning by earning’. Women are trained as per their aptitude in embroidery, block printing, tailoring, hand painting, or alternately under the finishing & packaging unit that involves thread cutting, closure fixing, alterations, stain removing, dry cleaning and packaging. Thus women with basic skills and having skill and aptitude were given product and production skills.

Training could only be a means, the end being income. Skill by itself cannot ensure livelihood. For skill to generate income there has to be productive activity that generates income. The skill – production- income cycle is complete.

Initially, SSMI provided training, not only at the SSMI campus, but also in villages located in West Delhi, enabling women to produce and supplement their family income. Modest small scale (micro) production was set up. In the seventies an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) was set up in the SSMI Campus The vocational training center building, at SSMI campus, was designed specifically for both training and production. Due to various reasons the ITI had to be suspended.

A group of novices cannot produce quality goods that alone can sell and generate income. They need to be supported by experienced persons who could mentor them and ensure quality production. Years of working in the slums, SSMI realized that urban India consisted of slums populated by people who were driven from rural India due to failure of agriculture on the one hand and handicrafts and handlooms on the other. An artisanal survey of the neighbourhood slums, validated SSMI’s observation and revealed that there were migrants from rural areas who possessed traditional textile related skills. These women were generally older and mature and were very experienced. They were retrained in production as well as contemporary designs. They became mentors for the younger women. To date, 54 women have been tested and recognized as artisans and have received artisan cards from the Handloom and Handicrafts Council, Ministry of Textiles, Govt. of India.

With that skill set SSMI decided to launch a production center. An ambitious and adventurous decision was taken to market under an SSMI brand name – SUBHA. Through a design center SSMI maintains a critical linkage between the artisans and the markets, in terms of designs, quality and datelines. The product range of ethnic and contemporary designs caters to the clientele that shops in Malls and boutiques. “SUBHA” provides a wide range of high quality products at highly competitive price.

SUBHA has its shop in the SSMI campus. In addition, product are sold through

  • Dilli Haat (INA & Janakpuri)
  • Exhibitions at Embassies (German & Australian)
  • Trade fairs / welfare associations carnivals
  • Custom fabrication for garment designers
  • Fabrication for Women entrepreneurs on conversion charges basis
  • “SUBHA” is a modest export portfolio

Future Directions

Training abroad

In the very near future, SSMI will be collaborating with a South African institute to provide training and production in Indian block printing using Indian and African motifs.

Design Nursery

SSMI would soon provide studio space to young budding designers, where they can develop designs, leading to a symbiotic relationship between designers and SUBHA production. The design nursery studio would be provided free of rent for a period of one year.

For more details visit subha.net.in also visit us on Facebook subha a new dawn for women

Taking training to income is a challenge as requires commitment together with investment