skip to content

TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


In Mangalta village, 20 women are working non-stop, packing and processing food and nutrition supplements to be distributed to the most vulnerable sections of the society - pregnant and nursing mothers, infants and children under six years. This has become even more critical during the COVID-19 lockdown period. As Babita (35), a federation functionary said, “We need to ensure the take home rations are delivered to the Anganwadi Centre (Child-care centres run under the Integrated Child Development Services or ICDS), so the workers can ensure this reaches those who need it most in these times of lockdown. We are taking all the necessary safety and precautionary measures such as maintaining physical distancing, use of sanitisers and masks and so on”.

This is a scene from the processing centre of Nari Ekta Federation, a women’s federation created under an ILSP (Integrated Livelihood Supported Programme) - IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) partnership programme in 2007. Working in Bhaisiyachana block of Almora district, Uttarakhand, federation members are spread across 19 Gram Panchayats (GPs) and 33 revenue villages.

With 792 shareholders (all women) and a total of 1170 members (1100 women, 70 men), the Federation has not just continued its usual activities of producing, collecting, processing, packaging and distributing traditional, locally grown, nutritious agricultural and non-cultivated produce as essential food and nutrition supplements, they are also undertaking new activities to address issues of hunger, food and nutrition, and livelihood security, in the context of COVID-19.

Responding to supply chain disruptions with traditional nutri-grains

With the supply chains disrupted, many essential food items are in short supply. What is available is being sold at escalated prices. Deepa (55), a federation member, staying 5km from the nearest market, told me: “It is like old times when we had to walk several kilometres to reach the market to buy essentials. I too went a few times, but returned empty-handed as the items I needed were not available, and the rest I couldn't afford. They wanted almost Rs 80 more (GBP 1) for a bag of wheat flour and Rs 40 extra for a kilo of mustard oil".

Around 35-40 federation functionaries and members are now working round the clock to ensure the availability of good quality food items from their own stock, especially to people in remote areas, particularly women and the elderly, at a price much lower than the market rates. In some cases, they are able to deliver at their doorstep, irrespective of whether or not the household is a member or regular buyer. Since 2014, the Federation has built a stock of local produce including organic spices (turmeric, red chillies and coriander), finger millet, wheat, barnyard millet, soyabean, black bhat etc. which they can now readily use to support households in this time of crisis.

Comparatively newer federations such as Pragati (in Hawalbagh block of Almora district), have also been contributing, though with a slight difference. Constituted under ILSP in 2015, it has 559 members (545 women,15 men), spread across 16 GPs and 18 revenue villages. Besides selling good quality produce locally and in nearby towns, now even on credit basis if required, they also run a bakery for value addition using local nutritious produce such as finger millet, barley, soyabean, black bhat, and many local vegetables.

Since the lockdown, Pragati members and functionaries have also been engaged in preparing and distributing packets of cooked food (strictly observing hygiene and sanitation guidelines), amongst the very needy such as beggars, the aged, the differently abled, local migrants (and their families), and those undertaking the long walk back to their villages from their worksites. Cattle feed for those struggling to feed their livestock, and in some cases, life-saving medicines are also being made available to the elderly and sick. These federations are getting critical support from the District Administration - ILSP, Almora, for carrying out these operations, such as issuing passes, or releasing payments to help cover their working costs.

Institutional convergence

The federations are able to respond today largely because of the institutional convergence between two government programmes (ICDS and ILSP). This has enabled them to include local, organic and nutritious produce, both cultivated and non-cultivated, in the preparation of nutrition supplements. Since 2014, these programmes have been working almost independently, strengthening the coordination between the self-help group (SHG) members at the village level and the board of directors and other functionaries of the Federation, with some support from the ILSP district office.

As the Anganwadi Centre (childcare centre) is currently closed, children are not receiving hot cooked meals, usually available under the ICDS. With assistance from the Anganwadi worker, federation members are now preparing nutritionally rich dry rations for approximately 700 children in the area. They are also selling good quality rations to the Village Health, Sanitation and Nutrition Committee (VHSNCs), constituted under the National Health Mission, and distributed to differently abled, elderly, landless and women-headed households.

Intensifying work burdens or renegotiating divisions of labour?

Besides intensifying their regular livelihood operations, such as the bakery unit baking biscuits, bread and buns from locally available finger millet and whole wheat flour for the local market, some members are also engaged in making masks, supporting the Anganwadi and health workers to maintain sanitary conditions, advising on precautionary measures, and documenting the details of people returning from outside. Without any hesitation, they are using their collective savings to help the community survive the crisis through credit and other support. Yet, with the disruption of public transport, reaching and involving members from distant villages remains a challenge.

Clearly, for these women, their centrality in this response to ensure food and livelihood security has added to their already existing workloads. As Sunita (35), a member, said: “Our work has certainly increased manifold. We are at least happy that families are not suffering due to insufficient food or hunger”.

But there exists an opposing view, as articulated by Lalita (45), a federation functionary: “Women in most of the households had to manage the agricultural work alone, around this time of the year. But this year, young children and men who have returned home are also contributing. Land preparation and sowing is in full swing now, and without their assistance, I could not have spent so much time in the Federation”.

Whether such changes in gender relations that seek to restore reciprocity and a more equitable sharing of work and responsibility persist beyond the pandemic remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it does open up possibilities for gender equality.

Moving towards sustainability

Uttarakhand has few identified COVID-19 cases so far. Yet, with declining interest in agriculture and high levels of male migration, there is no room for complacency as far as food and nutrition security is concerned. Social protection programmes including the public distribution system hardly integrate locally available and diverse nutrient rich grains, pulses and vegetables, nor do the markets on which people depend. During such crises, with transportation and economic activities coming to a halt, food security, livelihoods and health are all adversely affected, more so for those in remote, inaccessible and environmentally fragile areas.

This experience offers some lessons for the future sustainability of the federations. The importance of building individual and institutional capacities, community leadership, institutional convergence of different knowledge systems, as well as the inclusion of locally cultivated and uncultivated nutritious and diverse produce are critical to ensuring food and nutrition security. Decentralisation of federation activities, however, needs to be stressed even more, so that equitable opportunities are available to all members for earning a livelihood, even those residing in remote locations. Further, the active participation of local government or panchayati raj institutions is crucial for moving towards independence from administrative projects. This can go a long way in building up resilience of institutions and more equitable relationships among people.

All names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

This blog is based on information provided to the authors by the federations and DPM (ILSP), Almora and was written by Reetu Sogani, Lok Chetna Manch, Almora, and Nitya Rao, University of East Anglia, UK and member of TIGR2ESS Flagship Projects 1 and 6.