Interview with Maharashtra minister Yashomati Tai Thakur: “For the first time ever, … funds have been reserved for women under all departments”
Geetanjali Minhas | December 5, 2020 | Mumbai
Maharashtra’s women and child development minister Yashomati Thakur of the Congress is a member of the legislative assembly, representing Tivasa in Amravati district. She comes from a family of agriculturalists, her father Bhaiyasaheb Deshmukh was a Congress MLA and her grandfather a freedom fighter. In a conversation with Geetanjali Minhas, she talks about the huge challenges her department has faced during the pandemic and how they handled them.
The pandemic and the ensuing lockdown unfolded many challenges for your department. Can you tell us about them?
Women and children account for more than 50% of the state’s population. Initially, during lockdown with no transport and vehicles available, it became very challenging for us as we had to convert hot meals into dry rations for distribution.
We would have handled the situation better if we had prior information of a lockdown being imposed. Yet 15 days after the lockdown was imposed, we were all ready and able to reach all the nooks and corners. We reached all the targeted spots. Daily 75 lakh pregnant and lactating mothers and children between 0-6 years were given take home rations (THR).
While my department’s main job is to feed, we also have the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and Women and Child Department (WCD) that covers shelter homes, Bal Grihas, and various schemes. There is Women’s Commission, Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal, Child Rights Commission. It is hectic, huge and vast. We faced challenges everywhere that needed to be handled and solved properly.
There was an increase in cases of domestic violence. Women were confined to their homes and did not have an outlet. They did not have access [to help] and were not able to register complaints. They reached out to us online, sent messages, called us and we had to handle that at different stages. Our department came together as a team to handle such cases in the best possible manner. Since the lockdown on March 24 till November 30 the Mahila Ayog received 1,161 complaints regarding marital issues, dowry, sexual harassment at workplace, harassment at workplace, social issues, pending court cases and others. Action was taken on 1,079 cases.
We had to activate women’s self-help groups (SHG) in MaViM (Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal) and they manufactured and distributed 10 lakh masks and hand sanitizers. Every day was a challenge. It took some time, but we were able handle it. I can say with pride that my department was the most active department during lockdown.
While the government is well intentioned to reach out to the population with its various benefit schemes, how do you address the gaps while implementing the same?
During the lockdown my department was able to reach out to the last person and for that reason the government had to take help for all the anganwadi sevikas for implementing its schemes such as the ‘My Family, My Responsibility’ campaign. The pandemic occurs once in a century and if there is an emergency it is everyone’s duty to work. We gave them compensations too and they helped. There were complaints. We sat across with their sanghatanas and collectives and addressed their issues. I and my colleagues were in touch with them online and through WhatsApp groups across the state. We motivated them, they worked very hard and we were able to reach out.
Maharashtra has had a high rate of malnutrition among women and children and since the lockdown anganwadis have had to stop work to help the government with Covid work. How is your government addressing this issue?
The issue of malnutrition has existing for a long time. During the lockdown issues were hyped up, not because we did not reach out but because almost 11 lakh migrants came into [were homeless within] Maharashtra and these people were not accounted for in the government records. We had to feed them. There was a lot of pressure. It required finance. Our CAS system has recorded all financial details. Phones were provided to anganwadi seviaks who put in all the details online immediately. I could be anywhere in the world but was aware of what is happening in the anganwadis of Mumbai or Nandurbar or anywhere else in the state.
Malnutrition is a very sensitive and controversial issue. Even though many NG0s are working on this issue there remains a question mark to their work. Melghat, which is part of my district, is ill famed for very high malnutrition. When I came to know that more than 5,000 NGOs are working in Melghat to address the problem of malnutrition I wondered what work they were actually doing there and …there is no harm in raising the alarm… Because they require funding…they get articles and reports published… and that does affect… because government has been doing a lot of work on malnutrition.
That apart, we have to be very careful about the causes of malnutrition and how it is being addressed, whether it is being treated or not treated. As I said earlier, during the lockdown, the migrant influx increased in Maharashtra, and we had to feed them and therefore the numbers shot up.
Is there a difference in the way your government is handling the department vis-à-vis the previous government?
Earlier the department only concentrated on food chain whereas the WCD is a sensitive and vast department and if handled well has the power to touch lives of a huge population across the state. Besides feeding women and children as one of the primary objectives, we have to keep malnutrition under check. Beyond that there are shelter homes, counseling, women’s commission and complaints handling and dealing. With the earlier government, as the minister held charge of two departments she was more concentrated on gram vikas than woman and child development. In fact the WCD needs focus and attention and sustained monitoring.
For the first time ever, our government has recognised a gender budget, given it space and allocated funds, which effectively means that funds have been reserved for women under all departments. For example, in the home department, women police constables do not have proper toilets and benches to sit on. Now funds from the gender budget will be used to create theses amenities and facilities for them. Similarly, for medical facilities. Though the Mahila Dhoran [women’ policy] always existed, it was never implemented. The gender budget is the first step towards it.
An increasing number of domestic violence cases have been reported during the pandemic-induced lockdown. Your department also came out with apps and campaigns to address this issue. Can you tell us more on that?
In partnership with organisations and institutes like the TISS Special Cell for Women and Children, UNICEF, International Justice Mission and others, we came out with apps like ‘Stand Up Against Violence’ and a campaign ‘Gussa Aata Hai Toh Roko. Ek lambi Saans Lo’ to break the chain of anger.
The pandemic also led to a large number of child marriage and abuse cases in the state. How are you addressing such cases?
Child marriage is a crime and has to be dealt with like a crime only. In some rural communities multiple marriages take place to ease the burden on family, especially in districts of Beed, Solapur and Osmanbad, where we have Ustod Kamgar (sugar cane belt). I drove down 50,000 km by road around the state and was able to cover Amravati, Nagpur and Marathwada division to a large extent. For the girl child, her marriage is considered her security. With this mindset some parents have gotten their children married. If since the lockdown if we were able to stop 213 child marriages, can you imagine how many actually must have taken place? This is a matter of huge concern for which we all have to awaken towards what is happening around us. You cannot blame only WCD for this and such incidents must be reported so we can stop them. This issue needs awareness and you have to inform the police, your neighbours, friends and families that marriage under 18 years is illegal.
Can you please tell us about the welfare schemes of your department?
We are the first government in the country to come out with aid for sex workers and spending Rs 51 crore from October 2020 onwards for the next four months as of now. Each sex worker is being provided with Rs 5,000 and if she has a schoolgoing child then she will be provided with Rs 2,500 extra. Additionally we are also providing them dry ration.
The WCD department has been one of the busiest departments during Covid -19. Children at shelter homes were infected and this had us very worried. We had to decongest balgrihas and send kids back home while keeping checks on their safety and monitoring at home. Things were taken care of and gradually children were back into their shelter homes.
As there are psychological issues with children who live in ashrams and balgrihas, we have now started foster care of orphans above 5 years where caretakers can adopt or support a child for two years or look after their financial needs for a few years. This gives a family environment to the child. Maharashtra is the first state to initiate such a step. While foster care is the need of the hour it also requires a lot of strength to come forward for adoption. We have people coming forward for foster care. Besides, we have after-care homes for orphan children above 18 years of age. For pregnant and lactating mothers, we keep them under vigilance to give them protection and take care of their nutrition.
We have started a pilot project called Goat Bank in Akola, Amravati and Yavatmal where we are providing a single goat to a woman as a source of income. We take two lambs from the goat and the woman can keep the goat and the rest of the lambs with her. If successful this initiative will expand further.
We have launched the Nav Tejaswini Yojana of Rs 525 crore with support from IFAD (International Fund For Agriculture Development) where women’s SHGs will be provided loans under MaViM (Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamndal), a state women’s development corporation. As their reach is small, to scale up women SHGs we have proposed the involvement of women corporates. The SHGs, whether MSRLM (Maharashtra State Rural Livelihoods Mission) groups or MaViM groups, have been very supportive during the pandemic. A scheme is now on the anvil where all SHGs will be monitored by MaViM.
Possibly for the first time, the Maharashtra State Commission for Women (MSCW) does not have a chairperson – for almost 9 months now. When do you see the post filling up?
Yet, it is functioning pretty well and work continues as usual. It should have one soon. This is not the first time, as earlier too, for six years the commission did not have a head. It should be done as soon as possible. There is a system that works and with a head it works more effectively. The core of the women’s’ commission, that is, complaints redressal, has not been affected. Work is going on as usual. During the lockdown our complaint system went online and we addressed complaints on phone. While earlier people were hesitant to give their mobile numbers, now they are accustomed to it. The women’s commission has a fact-checker to ascertain complaints.
There have been reports that the government proposes to decentralise the Mumbai-based MSCW. What is the aim behind it?
In 2006, as a member of the MSCW, when I went around the state I realised that it needs to be decentralised. Once I got the opportunity my first decision was to decentralise every office of the commission as also the Child Rights Commission and to have an office in every division, so nobody has to come to Mumbai. We have proposed to call it ‘Mahilava Bal Bhavan’ and that the district planning committee (DPC) should provide funds for them. They can reach out online from wherever they are. Once the body is formed we can also have hearings in concerned divisions where all related officers working under different verticals of the women’s commission will work out of a single place.
What are your views on breast milk donation for babies whose mothers are not able to produce enough milk so that malnourishment can be prevented?
It’s a good thing and can be done if socially acceptable. While there are many government hospitals in Mumbai with milk banks, it is difficult to say if this is socially acceptable. We do not know if people from Ghadchiroli or Konkan will accept this.
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