The term Mitanin in Chhattisgarhi language literally means 'friend', someone who understands you, cares about you, who you will turn to for comfort, cheer and support.
This bond of friendship has a distinctly feminine face. Over generations in traditional society here, this has been celebrated as a 'forever friends' bond between two girls from different families. Even when the girls grow up, get married and perhaps move out of village, they remain connected. They are meant to be there for each other, particularly during rough times. As the saying goes, Sukh me sab hain , dukh me Mitanin" ( In times of joy, everyone is there, in times of sorrow, only the Mitanin).
A heavily forested, mineral-rich region, the state of Chhattisgarh was formed in November 2000. It is home to a vast population of tribals, dalits along with several other socio-economic, linguistic and ethnic groups. The diversity in language, dialect, culture and customs is mind-boggling. So is the sheer remoteness of some regions. All this has made the path to development, a challenging one.
This has been particularly evident in the area of public health. The nascent state had a very high burden of disease particularly malaria. Malnutrition was rampant; access to safe drinking water and sanitary toilets was low. Maternal and child health indicators were abysmal. Yet outreach remained limited.Access to services and basic information on health issues was poor.
It was against this backdrop that the state government embarked on an innovative programme to bring all people into the ambit of primary healthcare. Under the overall supervision of an autonomous institution- the State Health Resource Centre, a unique collaboration between the state government and non-governmental agencies was established.
To translate this on the ground, however called for a degree of ingenuity and on a scale that was perhaps unprecedented. The messages and services in the public health programme had to be pitched to multi-ethnic, cultural, socio-economic groups in a way that was simple, comprehensible and easy to access.
This then was the genesis of the 'Mitanin progamme' that borrowed heavily from the regionally embedded concept of 'forever friends'.
The health worker or the Mitanin lived in the village, spoke the language, and had an intrinsic understanding of the issues and people's mindsets. She bonded with the members of the community, was empathetic and listened. And this was her core strength to lead the community to improved health practices and outcomes.
The Mitanin is equipped with the skills and drugs required to treat common ailments. The 'Drug Kit' is integral to their work that is routinely refilled under the programme, 'Mitanin Mukhiya Mantri Dava-petti Yojana'.
Today more than 60, 000 Mitanins live and work at the micro level of rural society, the paara or hamlet in a village. They do not get a fixed salary. Instead they get cash incentives for specific duties in maternal and child healthcare such as immunization and institutional births. This at times is delayed. Or else it is sporadic. But that does not deter them. They look at their work as a service that earns them the love and respect of the community of which they are a part.
Savitri Sahu, 45, Mitanin working in Saradih village, Janjgir Champa district, says, " Our life is hard. We earn very little from this work. But I make sure that all the children in my paara get the best care. Mitanin Dhankuwar Jaiswal 35, assists Savitri Sahu and is equally dedicated.
Perhaps it is this level of commitment that gives them the strength to act in crises. And this is exactly what happened in Saradih when from February 2016, the fund flow suddenly dried up. The Drug Kit was not getting refilled and this threw the Mitanins into a quandary.
Says Savitri, "We had stopped getting our 'sahyog rashi' ( cash incentives) for some time, but we weren't upset about that. But when the supply of medicines was affected, we panicked. How could we administer basic drugs to the community?" They were aware that a substantial amount, Rs. 10,000 was available as Untied Funds. This was meant largely for tasks related to cleanliness (Swachhta ) Says Savitri, " We knew this was for Swachhta but we felt that could wait whereas supply of drugs should not stop".
The Mitanins then approached the Panchayat with the demand to use the funds available in Swachhta to get the necessary drugs. The Mitanins need not have moved on this. They were well within their right to sit still till the Drug Kit gets refilled. Clearly they were going beyond their prescribed round of duties to raise the issue and pursue it.
What moved them; what powered them to step outside their comfort zone and get into sticky situations that they could have easily avoided? The stalling of funds and erratic supply of drugs was after all not their fault. They were only local players in a mammoth state-level programme that had clear lines of responsibility and they would be absolved of any blame.
But the people would have suffered and that was unacceptable to the Mitanins. With a wry smile, Savitri says " We are mothers too. If our child suffers, we will do everything in our power to protect him or her. It is the same for the people in our paara who we are supposed to look after. We did what was the best possible in the circumstances".
With the cooperation of the panchayat, the Mitanins were able to access some amount from the Untied Funds but it was not enough. They then contributed some amount from their personal earnings to create the quantum required to purchase the necessary medicines.
Through their spontaneous action, the Mitanins of Saradih have transcended the line of official duty and responded to a higher human need. More than their routine acts, this has earned them the deep affection and appreciation of the community.
The fund crunch continued till October 2016 and that made it eight long months. Yet no one in Saradih felt the pinch because their village Mitanins, stood like a rock to shield them. This indeed is the core of the Mitanin concept - two girls who stick together and face life's little and big problems. And this truly reflects the spirit behind the Mitanin programme in Chhattsisgarh.
The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Naresh Kumar Jatwar of Charkha Features.