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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 34, August 13, 2011 - INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL

Issues that can Unite People—Ideas for the Mamata Banerjee Government

Saturday 20 August 2011, by Bharat Dogra

When a charismatic leader unites people for a long awaited and widely celebrated election victory, conducive conditions are created for utilising the high levels of motivation for several constructive tasks. This moment should not be lost. It will not last forever. While the motivations of people are still high, some ideas and programmes with the potential to benefit greatly a very large number of people should be launched on a priority basis. These programmes should also have a strong emotional appeal for people. Such programmes can harness the enthusiasm and goodwill of people created at the time of a much cherished election victory in such a way that the high level of motivations can provide creative outlets and with this participation of people memorable achievements can be made in a short time. These priority issues should be selected in such a way that these can unite people across partly lines despite the bitter political divisions that may exist.

Thinking about such priority issues, it appears to me that there cannot be a better issue in the present context than the highly desirable objective of reducing maternal and child mortality. The welfare of mother and child is much cherished in our value system, and saving the life of mother and child evokes an even stronger emotional appeal. But somehow these values could not be harnessed to actually reduce maternal and child mortality rates significantly and these remain significantly high even in comparison to several other developing countries.

There are several reasons behind this failure. Merely distributing iron tablets to pregnant women is not enough as long as essential norms of food and nutrition are not met. The insistence on institutional child-birth is wasted when the most essential facilities do not exist in government hospitals. In private clinics the bias for cesarian deliveries messes up the situation. Child-care is hampered by excessive emphasis on a few high-profile programmes like polio immunisation. The ICDS performance is much below satisfactory norms.

WHILE all these factors are important, what is perhaps even more significant is the failure to involve people in a big way in a highly motivated, integrated programme for reducing maternal and child mortality. It is this crucial shortcoming of the national effort that can be more effectively tackled in West Bengal making use of a situation when there is high motivation on the part of the government and its supporters for some meaningful achievements. A programme centred on ‘mother and child’, particularly saving their lives, can bring together a large number of enthusiastic people willing to make voluntary contributions.

The government should seek the opinion of dedicated doctors and health workers with experience at the grassroots level to find out the problems and limitations of the existing programmes. The existing budget would be better used as a result of this understanding and the government should be willing to allocate more financial resources if needed. Transparent systems should be set up to remove any possibility of financial misappropriation even from such a priority programme. Panchayats should be closely involved in this effort. Programme committees should be set up at the level of rural hamlets and in urban ward areas to closely monitor problems as well as achievements. Independent experts should be welcomed to monitor progress and problems so that a true picture can emerge.

Modern as well as traditional media, including folk theatre, songs and dance, should be used to carry the message of the safety of children and mothers in an informative yet colourful way. Villages and urban settlements should be rewarded for good progress of this scheme. Achievements in reducing maternal and child mortality should be celebrated as a matter of pride, but at the same time care should be taken to ensure that persisting problems and failures are not brushed aside.

As child and maternal mortality cannot be reduced on a durable basis without solid improvements in health services and nutrition, these should get adequate attention. A related task that can benefit much from the involvement and co-operation of a large number of people is the improvement of the mid-day meal scheme and ICDS. If women in particular are closely involved in these schemes, then nutrition for children, lactating mothers and pregnant women can be considerably improved.

There are exciting prospects for linking improvement of nutrition schemes with better livelihood opportunities for women from weaker sections. Self-help groups of women can be helped to set up small-scale infrastructure to provide hygienic, nutritious food for mid-day meals, ICDS, and other nutrition schemes. This will provide these small-scale women entre-preneurs a base from where they can expand into other related activities. The raw material for nutrition schemes should be purchased as far as possible from local organic farmers.

At a wider level, two related objectives of providing healthy food to consumers and strengthening sustainable livelihood of farmers can be achieved by the promotion of organic farming in a big way. Linkages of farmers with city-based regular buyers can be established in creative ways, such as by linking some urban colonies with some villages where farmers from those villages can freely market their organic produce. The government should re-orient its farming policies so that all possible help for organic farming or shift to organic farming can be provided to farmers, based on the principle of self-reliant, low-cost farming which makes best possible use of local resources.

Struggles against unjust land acquisition played an important role in the political change in West Bengal, and it’ll be very appropriate if a new model of industrial development which avoids or minimises displacement, acquisition of fertile farmland and pollution can emerge from here. Such a model should also have more oppor-tunities of generating employment so that the prospects of jobless growth can be avoided. This industrial development will provide more oppor-tunities to small-scale entrepreneurs (including rural people) and educated youth should get government help and support for innovate and people-friendly forms of industrial development.

Bharat Dogra is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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