One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is the field work.
Anganwadis are local centers that provide food, nutrition, and care, for children and mothers, and are managed by women workers. I interviewed 50 Anganwadi workers, mothers, state representatives, and Anganwadi union leaders in Tamil Nadu and conducted observations at Anganwadis.
I am unable to share pictures of the Anganwadis or of the people I interviewed, but I can share some pictures from what I captured on my way to different Anganwadis.
On my way to an Anganwadi in Tamil Nadu.
I loved the contrasting red saree in the middle of all the green around. Skirting the road is a long line of palm trees.
A glimpse of life on my way to an Anganwadi.
A salt flat (uppalam, in Tamil, the local language)
Connected to the local salt factory, this was an important source of livelihood for several families.
The salt is dried in heaps in the sun. Much of the work is done before the sun comes up. Therefore, for a lot of mothers, it meant leaving for work, even before their children wake up.
A house with a design very typical to the area.
I loved these colorful houses all around!
I was excited to witness an institutionalized grievance redressal mechanism at the village level. Once a month, the district administration conducts a “Makkal Thodarpu Mukaam” (“People Connect Day”) to accept petitions from people. Many people called this day, “Petition Justice Day”.
On this day, people can submit petitions regarding grievances related to local administration. Grievances could include delay/faulty services or corruption.
This practice was initiated in the 1970s by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam when they first formed the government. Every month, the administration will collect petitions and inform the village what number of petitions from the previous month had been mitigated, rejected, and accepted.
‘Petition’ is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens to hold local state actors accountable and people use it regularly.
Tamil Nadu has a vibrant social movement history.
Here, farmers associations, led by the Communist Party had called for a day of road blockage (Saalai Mariyal) to get the administration’s attention to water shortage.
Tamil Nadu is experiencing severe drought this year and massive protests have been held both in the state and in New Delhi to bring attention to the situation. The pots in front of the protesters symbolize water.
This was the day of the water protests.
We were informed that road blockage would begin at 9 am. Some people warned me from leaving the house, for fear that I could get stuck in the road blockage protest, but how could I miss observing a protest.
Here, I am inside a bus on my way to the Anganwadi and a protester is outside ‘blocking’ the bus! The driver managed to persuade the protester to let us go since the protest had not technically begun before 9 am! The benevolent protester did let us go!
A Dalit woman (she identified herself as Scheduled Caste) shares a leaflet distributed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) regarding a protest to demand timely and regular wages related to NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).
As per the NREGA, the state guarantees 100 days of work in a year for every household. In Tamil Nadu 82% of NREGA beneficiaries are women.
Studies also point out that NREGA has increased the bargaining power of poor Dalits who were otherwise in a precarious position in agricultural labor or casual labor in private sector.
However, NREGA may have its own implementation issues which these protests highlight and demand mitigation. In every village I visited, stories of protests were abundant.
In some villages, they described it as a neighborhood protest, and in others as a protest that was organized by a political party such as the Communist Party or the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK or Liberation Panther party).
In one village, VCK organized a protest against caste-based discriminatory practices in relation to a temple festival. The caste hindus did not relent i.e. they wanted to continue the exclusionary practices where Dalits would not be allowed to perform some rituals. In response to the Dalit protests, the state bureaucracy had to stop the entire festival.